Don’t Shoot the Victims

Years ago, when I was writing movie reviews for the local newspaper, another young reporter and one of my college classmates, had the local news beat.  Covering a house fire, she approached the owners about how they felt.  The newspaper received a flood of complaints about her insensitivity.  The editor, a kindly old-school gentleman journalist, gently reprimanded her for her actions.  I, on the other hand, was let go for criticizing the spate of violent movies (i.e. Robocop) that riddled theaters during the 1980s.

A couple of teenaged boys drowned in Budd Lake here in New Jersey.  They fell through some ice on Monday evening.  One boy fell in trying to save his friend.  A local newspaper interviewed the grieving father about how he felt about the prospect of not finding his son.

Queen Elizabeth II was highly criticized after Princess Diana’s death for not making more public their mourning for the dead princess.  The British public – and press – considered the Queen their leader-in-mourning, even though she had been Diana’s mother-in-law and had the care of Diana and Charles’ two sons, William and Harry.  She considered mourning a private matter.  The public considered it a public matter.

The most recent incident of First Amendment controversy involves 28 year-old Andrew Henderson, 28, of Little Canada, Minn.  Andrew recorded the arrest of a man from his apartment building parking lot.  The police confiscated his video camera.  A week later he was charged with obstruction of legal process and disorderly conduct, which are misdemeanors.  The charge specifically dealt with HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The rule deals with how health care providers handle the confidentiality of consumers’ health information.  When my neighbor’s unit caught fire, I took some photos of the fire trucks and so forth, but not my neighbor.  Even so, one of the first responders shielded her protectively when she saw the camera (which was not aimed at anything at that point).

Whether we like it or not, the First Amendment allows photographers to take pictures in public, though not on private property.  You can’t take photos of most stadiums or amusement parks: licensing violations.  The credentialed press has more freedom than the average freelance photographer.  The National Press Photographers Association publishes a whole section on the ethics of public photography, beginning with respecting the subject’s privacy.

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department went too far in confiscating Henderson’s camera and charging him with crimes under the Obamacare laws.  Defense attorneys, of course, are busy at work trying to prevent the practice of capturing their defendants “in the act.”  In this day and age of inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras, video cameras, and Iphones, anyone can be a witness to current events.  Not only should it not be a crime to film someone in the act of committing a crime or being arrested (you should try to be careful not to film the law enforcement official’s faces, though; they have enough problems without crooks being able to find their pictures on YouTube); it should be a citizen’s duty.

Photographing victims is another matter.  No amount of First Amendment freedom is excuse enough to photograph them without their permission.  We shouldn’t have to have a law to prevent it that would damage the Constitution.

Ethics – short in supply these days – ought to be the guiding principle.  Ask yourself this:  if it was your son who just drowned in an icy pond, your daughter who was just riddled with bullets by a madman, your house that just got swept away by a flood or a tornado, your house that just burned to the ground, taking with it all your memories and possibly some family member or pet, would you want to be photographed?



Published in: on January 9, 2013 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

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