The First Amendment & Emergency Scene Photos

The images have become iconic: A firefighter wrestles with a news photographer who refuses to stop taking pictures of the treatment of a patient. A police officer arrests a cameraman who refuses his orders to stop taking pictures. A paramedic pushes the...


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The images have become iconic: A firefighter wrestles with a news photographer who refuses to stop taking pictures of the treatment of a patient. A police officer arrests a cameraman who refuses his orders to stop taking pictures. A paramedic pushes the lens of a camera, prompting fighting words from the photographer.

While iconic, the images are also ironic as confrontations over photography have themselves been captured in photos. There have been numerous cases in recent years in which fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel have found themselves at odds with photographers at emergency scenes. A few cases have ended up in federal court, where emergency responders have been taught an expensive lesson about the First Amendment rights of photographers.

 

Why does this happen:Our training & our culture

How do dedicated, caring professionals who come to work every day committed to helping people find themselves accused of civil rights violations? Do emergency responders have the right to limit what photographers can photograph? Does it matter whether the photographer is a credentialed member of the media or just some busybody with a cell phone camera? Those are the questions this column will address.

The emergency services – fire, EMS and law enforcement – have distinct organizational cultures. Often, our cultures drive our decision-making, leading us to act in ways that are consistent with our cultural values.

Firefighters and emergency medical personnel are trained to respect and protect the privacy rights of patients and victims. This training is reinforced regularly and bolstered by concerns over the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and medical confidentiality. As a result, safeguarding patient privacy becomes ingrained in the culture of fire and EMS organizations.

Police officers are trained to take command at a scene as a strategy to prevent the unruly behavior of a few bystanders from causing a situation to get out of control. Officers learn that letting one unruly person disregard their instructions can prompt others to follow suit, leading a tense emergency scene to devolve into chaos. The result is that police officers are conditioned to issue authoritative verbal commands to citizens and enforce those commands when they are ignored.

Both of these aspects of emergency service culture are understandable, but both can predictably lead to a direct clash with photographers at emergency scenes.

 

The law

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Among the rights directly referenced in the First Amendment are freedom of speech and freedom of the press. While freedom of speech clearly extends to all people, a question that commonly arises today with regards to freedom of the press is: Who exactly is “the press”?

In the 1700s, members of “the press” either owned or worked for someone who owned the only means of mass communication – a printing press. Over the years, freedom of the press has been understood to protect the media from government censorship, as well as prohibiting government from restricting a reporter’s right to cover newsworthy stories.

How do we define “the press,” written into the Constitution in 1791, in the age of 24-hour cable news, computers and the Internet? Isn’t a simple photocopier or even a printer the equivalent of a 1700s printing press? And what about electronic news – tweets and blogs – that doesn’t even require “printing”? Is someone with a blog a member of the press? How about a 13-year-old with a Facebook page?

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