First Amendment, Fire Scene Photos and Road Closures

 

Today’s burning question: I live in a rural area where it is common practice at vehicle accidents and fire scenes for the road leading to the scene to be shut down by fire police (members of the fire department who are peace officers). Because this is a rural area the road may be shut down a mile or more away from the incident so that traffic may be diverted onto an alternative routes.

Do fire police (or anyone for that matter) have the authority to stop someone from passing them for the purpose of photographing the incident in cases like this (they do not let the public through typically)? Would this be considered a legitimate exclusionary zone, considering the distance from the incident or would it violate the photographer’s First Amendment Rights?

Answer: Great question in light of our recent First Amendment discussions.

If the road is closed and traffic is diverted a mile from the scene, but local traffic is allowed to proceed past the fire police, then it would probably violate the photographer’s First Amendment Rights to exclude him/her from being allowed to proceed closer to the scene.

If the road is closed to ALL traffic (even local traffic) due to safety concerns – or even due to operational work zone concerns such as congestion, hose lines, tanker shuttle operations, etc., then photographers could be prevented from proceeding by vehicle. The fire police would not be able to stop them from parking outside the traffic exclusion zone and proceeding on foot, unless there is a safety issue or work zone concern.

Where a department could get themselves in trouble is if they use safety or the work zone exception as a pretext to exclude photographers, reporters, or even members of the public from covering a newsworthy event.  The First Amendment’s protections to extends to everyone, not just photographers or the media.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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