‘Go take pictures of birds’: Firefighter tells student reporters to beat it, refuses to give identification

Photo: Rosemary Montalvo / The Union

Student journalists, like their professional counterparts, often clash with authority figures, but reporters from El Camino College in California had a particularly egregious run in with a firefighter last week. 

Students from The Union went out to cover what appeared to be a medical incident at the college's student health center, where emergency crews including police and an ambulance had arrived.

The reporters set to work asking questions and taking pictures, but they say things turned ugly when they tried to interview a firefighter standing near the scene. The firefighter not only refused to provide any information or identification, but also claimed they could be arrested under HIPAA (totally untrue) and told them to "go take pictures of birds" instead of the scene.

This serves as a good reminder for students going out to cover emergency situations that although first responders sometimes have a legitimate safety reason to move people in a public area — like if a building is on fire and at risk of collapsing — officials can’t just shoo journalists away because they don't want to talk to them. 

“You have a right to be there, and they can’t just cite random privacy laws or use the fact that they’re in positions of authority to scare you away,” said SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean. 

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Q: Do private school students have any recourse when their free speech rights are stripped?

A: Options for fighting private school censorship can vary significantly from school to school. As you are probably already aware, you don't have First Amendment protection from censorship in private schools, so you have to look elsewhere. Reminder: The First Amendment only protects against censorship by government officials; it would not restrict censorship by, for example, the headmaster of a private school. If the school is in either CA or RI we'd first look at possible state statutory protection. (Other states may join the lineup as time goes by.)

Otherwise, you're largely dependent on school policies for protection. While private schools don't have to promise their students that they will respect their free speech rights, some (in fact, many) schools have voluntarily adopted policies/statements that do so. Where that's the case — if the promise is specific enough — courts have looked at such documents, which students reasonably rely upon, as creating legally enforceable contractual promises. Look, for example, for a Student Rights and Responsibilities statement or a specific student media policy. A few states also have state constitutions that may provide additional free speech protections in the private school context. Check out the SPLC Private School Guide for a deeper dive into these topics.

Where they can’t rely on a court of law for protection, many private school students have forced schools to rethink their censorship by taking their case to the court of public opinion (local media or other public relations outlets), and holding administrators accountable for their actions. Thankfully, in most cases, censorship is a bad look — and lousy PR — for schools.

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