Rights and Responsibilities

When I was a Boy Scout, I remember getting my Totin’ Chip
card, which gave me the right to use a knife and an axe as part of scouting
life. In one part of the card, it explained the rights you garnered, but on the
other half, it talked about the responsibilities you were required to live up
to. I thought about that today as I read through the discussion on this topic,
primarily because I wonder how much we tend to think about our rights, but
maybe not our responsibilities.

As an ardent defender of free speech, I’m having trouble
with this
because I hate the idea of siding with either side. I can’t imagine
anything good out of either side winning, so here’s the information and I’ll
let smarter people than me figure it out:

A Georgia judge blocked the release of photos taken of
Meredith Emerson, a hiker who was found nude and decapitated. A writer for
Hustler magazine had sought the photos as part of a request for open records.
After the judge blocked the request, a representative for Hustler said the
magazine is reviewing its legal options.

The same day the ruling came out, the state’s Governmental
Affairs Committee passed a bill that will be sent to the house, barring the
release of graphic photos of crime victims. The “Meredith Emerson Memorial
Privacy Act” is likely to cause a stir once it hits the legislature, although
no one has made any bets as to how likely it will be to pass.

The inherent pull between the right to full disclosure of
documents controlled by a government agency (in this case, police photos) and
the government’s desires to keep documents private is as old as the hills.
First Amendment advocates argue that you can’t suppress a documents simply
because you don’t like the content. Governmental bodies have argued that there
are things that need to happen as a matter of course that serve no public good
in seeing, regardless of the broadest possible interpretation of the law.

The two key underlying issues here, obviously, are the
magazine and the content. You can’t say “I’m sorry, your publication sucks.
Therefore, you have no right to this public document.” As a student media
adviser, I heard variations on that theme for years. My favorite was “You’re
not a REAL newspaper. You’re just students.” And yet the inherent sense that
certain media outlets are more important, more valuable and more “worthy” to
obtain records often leads the conversation astray. If the New York Times were
asking for this stuff, this first issue wouldn’t be an issue.

Just as much as you can’t say “no” because of who is asking,
you sense that you can’t not say “no,” based on their track record. It’s like
trusting the student who has skipped class 10 times already when they tell you
they can’t make class because their grandmother has died. You want to support
the kid and yet you can’t tear your mind away from the idea that this is going
to end poorly.

The second underlying issue is the content. We do limit
records that can be released in a number of ways and for a number of reasons.
Most of those reasons are germane to the content. For example, as a public
employee, my salary is an open record. On the other hand, my personnel file and
my medical file are not. You could make the argument that what I make is not
nearly as important as if I’ve got a mental disorder that could lead to me
harming a student. You could also argue that a personnel file contains much
more telling and vital information than a salary document. Still, we protect
these things for a number of reasons.

However, over the years, we’ve eroded the number of things
that can be released and in most cases it boils down to this: “That’s icky. No
way.” I’m in no way diminishing the sense of loss or the damage that these
photos might cause to the family of Meredith Emerson, but I am saying that
taste has become a determining factor in what we do or do not release.

The underlying problem with that argument is that tastes
differ and there’s always that slippery slope argument. I’m not a fan of either
concepts, but they both exist in some way or another. In the end, as a defender
of free speech, I worry that soon police reports will not be released due to
their graphic nature or that minutes from particularly tense meetings won’t be
released because of graphic or foul language.

I have a strong sense that the only thing Hustler was
thinking about was, “Hey! Nude dead chick! We can make some money and get some
press!” However, the magazine has won important court cases regarding the
publication of material that was previously banned. I think in many cases,
Hustler and other fringes of our journalistic world think about their rights,
but maybe not so much their responsibilities.

When theory and practice clash, it tends to be messy. I hope
that the right thing gets done, even though I’m not sure there is such a thing
in this case.

12 thoughts on “Rights and Responsibilities

  1. There are also the rights to privacy of the victim (weak argument as many rights don’t survive death) and the victim’s family.

  2. The right thing: the photos are released, and Hustler has the good sense (and grace) not to publish them.
    I know, it’s a long shot, but you asked.

  3. re theory and practice, it’s parallel to the idea that lawyers who defend known criminals or terrorists must be inherently criminal or treasonous themselves.
    yeah, some are sleazebuckets, but in theory, it’s the constitution and due process that’s being defended, not the person who likely did the crime.

  4. re theory and practice, it’s parallel to the idea that lawyers who defend known criminals or terrorists must be inherently criminal or treasonous themselves.
    yeah, some are sleazebuckets, but in theory, it’s the constitution and due process that’s being defended, not the person who likely did the crime.

    Exactly. Our laws don’t protect the innocent. They protect us all. A distinction that isn’t made much these days.

  5. You know? In this case I would think that the “who wants to publish” is germane, because Hustler has a reputation for publishing pornography, and this woman can’t consent to being used. If Hustler wants to be taken as a news source, they’d better act like it.
    I just can’t make my brain go to the end user of this particular product.

  6. I wonder if it would work to essentially declare that all publication rights to photos of crime victims rest solely with the victims or their next of kin. That way, the government can release the photos (and not keep secrets), but news outlets could only publish them with the consent of the families.
    Families could give a blanket consent to publish or not, or withhold consent from publications they don’t like for whatever reason. (Pictures of crime scenes that do not show a victim would not be covered under something like this.)
    The main pitfall I can see is what happens when the next of kin is also the perpretrator? It seems like murderers shouldn’t be able to control pictures of their victims.

  7. If Hustler doesn’t get the photos they’re asking for, perhaps they’ll just have to settle for nude/incriminating photos of the judge, key legislators, etc.
    Because, you know, Georgia. Deep GOP fundie territory. The only question is whether wetsuits or goats are involved. Maybe both.
    Would that count as a win-win?

  8. Dorothy, it’s not that I’m insensitive to the families of the victims, but they are not the only ones whose interests are served when crime photos are published. Crime affects an entire community and sometimes graphic images of those crimes are the only way to rouse a community against such acts. The interests of the readers or viewers also have to be considered.
    Which is why the discussion of when to publish, as distinct from the one Doc initiated about the mere release of the photos, has to take into account whether the publication intends to make a statement worth causing that kind of upset to the family. If it’s merely prurient, or if it intends to say, as a publication I once worked at did, that such photos are published because we want to force the public to solve the problems depicted therein.
    It’s a thorny sitch to be sure.

  9. “The right thing” is also a matter of taste. The lawful thing is not. Release the photos, because they are part of what should be a public record compiled by a government agency.
    Governmental bodies have argued that there are things that need to happen as a matter of course that serve no public good in seeing, regardless of the broadest possible interpretation of the law.
    Bull and shit. You can’t start saying that item X should not be released because it serves no public good. You say you don’t like slippery slope arguments, but that’s what you get here. Once the government get the capacity to decide what does and does not serves a public good, what do you think happens to information and accountability? I realize that we have imperfect information and accountability now, but there’s absolutely no reason (other than the compromise of an in-process investigation or the desire to prevent copycat crimes) that the government shouldn’t make any police record available to anyone who requests it.
    I don’t need anyone telling me what is and is not appropriate for me to look at. It’s paternalistic at best and blatantly dishonest at worst.

  10. Perhaps restricting the photos legally is incorrect from a legal standpoint.
    I was not sympathetic to the members of the Manson family victims relatives who were upset over the LA PD history exhibit during a police / coroners convention in Vegas last month, though. The bloody gloves from the OJ
    murder and a (fairly demure) photo of Marilyn Monroe in her deathbed were included; the Kennedy family got RFK’s bloody shirt from the assassination removed (rightly, I think). The Manson family victims relatives were not able to get either the ropes (short lengths of grass rope whipped with masking tape to stop them unraveling; did the Manson family do that, or the LA PD?) nor the gun used to bludgeon one of the murder victims removed.
    Evidence may be contained in those photos.
    But as has been said above, WTF?Hustler wants to publish crime-scene photos??

  11. Shit, this one’s easy. Release the photos. What the hell would the victim’s family be doing checking her out in Hustler anyway? If that traumatizes them, well, they asked for it.

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