Looking for a quality used fire truck? Selling one? Visit our sponsor Command Fire Apparatus
If you checked Twitter this (Thursday) morning to see how the Baltimore light rail system was running there’s a good chance you were greeted by the tweet above. But the tweet you saw likely didn’t have the black boxes that I added to the images.
The uncensored photos show two halves of the same body. One half in each picture. The body was that of a man who, just seconds before people were snapping his picture, had tried to cross N. Howard Street south of W. Mulberry Street. A light rail train sliced the man’s body in half and deposited it a little more than two blocks south, at W. Lexington Street.
The immediate reaction of some bystanders was to take pictures of the body parts and share the photos on Twitter and other social media. At least one other person took video and did the same. The images and video can still be found on Twitter more than 12-hours later.
As disgusting as this is, the people taking the photos and videos had a legal right to do so. The First Amendment doesn’t really take morals and ethics into account. A police officer, firefighter or EMS worker trying to censor those images by seizing the persons phone or ordering the deletion of the photos or videos would likely be the one breaking the law.
HIPAA is not an issue in this case. Public safety folks feeling the need to protect the person’s privacy is not an excuse. A cop, firefighter or EMT thinking that the person with the camera is disgusting doesn’t matter. The First Amendment is around to actually prevent those judgments by government officials from impacting our freedom to take these pictures.
Conversely, if the police officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic shot these pictures and then shared them, even privately with friends (not on social media), there’s a very good chance they would be in trouble. Besides HIPAA and department regulations there are now states where it is against the law for those in public safety to shoot and share such images.
This was not meant to be a lecture on the First Amendment from someone who isn’t even a lawyer. It’s really to spark a discussion about cameras in society today. When I bring this topic up with my many friends in public safety, more often than not, I get a lecture about the damn news media. What I usually point out is that the picture taking of the news media is likely the least of your problems today.
Like on Howard Street this morning, the public is there long before the traditional news media. Even long before you get there. Some of these images were already on social media before or immediately after Baltimore police and firefighters arrived.
None of the traditional news media is going to show these images of a body cut in half. Even if they did show something you found objectionable, at least there are managers you can appeal to about your concerns. Who are you going to complain to when you see something like this from the public?
To complicate things a little bit more, there are federal appeals court rulings that recognize that with digital news media in the hands of everyone, the public of today IS the news media. Freedom of the press extends to all.
Of course it says a lot about our society that people share photos and videos like this without giving it a second thought. But keep in mind that such gruesome pictures of a person’s death on the street used to make the daily newspaper up until the 1950s or early 60s. They were shot by staff photographers and freelance photojournalists.
If you see such shocking images today and your knee jerk reaction is to immediately start cursing the news media, I promise I won’t lecture you as I have in the past. Just as long as you acknowledge that the news media is now really us.