Shielding grisly scenes because there's no expectation of privacy in public spaces

Back in the day when I was an active emergency medical technician (EMT), we really didn’t have to deal with gawkers who might try to take pictures to upload to the Internet of horrific accidents that happened in public spaces. And if someone tried to poke their nose in to the accident scene, an authoritative “back away” or “get out of here” would usually suffice if I didn’t have a useful role to direct the bystanders to (e.g., “If you want to help, please go make sure that there’s a clear path for the ambulance – get everyone out of the way and keep them out of the way.”)

Frankly, I didn’t give a damn about onlookers’ First Amendment rights, and I generally still don’t in such situations. My priorities were patient care and then the patient’s privacy. Thankfully, no one back then ever tried to argue with me that “well, this is a public space, so there’s no expectation of privacy,” as I’m not sure how I would have responded, although I’m pretty sure it would not have been pleasant. Most patients do not choose to have accidents in public spaces or to be on display. Their exposure is as unintended and unwelcome as their injuries.

Things have changed since the days I was an active EMT, though, as Bob Greene reports:

The sight by the side of American highways and roads is an increasingly common one. The first time you encounter it can be confusing, until you quickly figure it out.

“In the last 10 years it has become pretty standard for us,” said Don Lundy, president of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. “We wish we didn’t have to do it.”

You’ll see it at the site of particularly grisly automobile accidents. As the EMTs and other first responders struggle to free the victims from crushed cars and try to save their lives, other emergency workers—police officers, firefighters—stand in pairs, holding up blankets or tarps perpendicular to the pavement.

“It’s necessary,” said Mr. Lundy, who is a full-time EMT in Charleston County, S.C. “I don’t think it’s that people have changed. It’s that the technology available to them wasn’t there before.”

Read more on WSJ.

Yes, it’s the clash between the First Amendment and patient privacy. And unless the victim is a public figure, I would prefer that the balance tip towards patient privacy. The courts, however, do not agree with me, so unless something changes as a matter of law, expect to see many more tarps or shields in the years to come.

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  1. Anonymous - June 25, 2014

    I can somewhat understand that some people are intrigued/fascinated by grisly accident scenes. However, if their parent, sibling, spouse, child, friend, etc. was the patient in the public space, would they want the photos posted to social media sites? My guess is no. People really need to think beyond themselves to the detrimental impact that stumbling across such horrific pictures would cause grief-stricken family and friends.

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