Hyperlocal News Coverage of Classroom Violence Requires Caution

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News videos of classroom brawls and bullying in local schools are newsworthy, but the hyperlocal coverage may draw threats from some who don’t want the information published. This year, legal claims emerged in New York and Philadelphia to get videos of school violence off the Internet. They provide some guidance on what hyperlocals may expect if they cover such sensitive types of local stories.

Robert Scott sued WorldStarHipHop, Inc. after the site published a video showing him in a classroom brawl at Berkeley College in New York. According to federal court records, Scott’s current girlfriend and former girlfriend began trading punches in class. Scott then joined the fray, attacking his former girlfriend. Classmate Omar Seymour captured the entire brawl on video and uploaded it on WorldStar. (Note: the video is no longer available online)

Scott sued WorldStar in Federal Court last December 2010, alleging the video violated his right of privacy under New York law. New York’s law — as well as similar laws in 33 other states — prohibit the use of a person’s picture or likeness for commercial use without permission. For example, your picture on a billboard endorsing a product would violate the law if you did not give permission. Scott claimed since WorldStar makes money showing its content through advertising and other sources, it unlawfully used his image without consent.

Scott’s claim overlooked one major exception to the law, namely, that the law does not apply to images used in a newsworthy event or a matter of public interest. “It is a recording of an actual event,” Federal Judge P. Kevin Castel ruled on May 2, 2012. “The actual events recorded took place in public, in a classroom in a federally-funded school in Manhattan, and included a violent altercation among collage-age students, the reactions of other students, and the apparent absence of prompt administrative response.”

In Philadelphia,  TV’s FOX 29 broadcasted a story on February 12, 2012, showing students out of control in an elementary school classroom. The report included video depicting one clip showing a girl being harassed by two students and an “all out brawl in the classroom.” The report added that “it’s all happening while teachers are in the classroom.” According to the FOX 29 news report, a 7th grader student recorded the video over a two week period “who wanted her mother to see what was going on she says every day in her classroom.” The video report can be viewed here.

The story prompted a heated posting from Philadelphia teacher Christopher Paslay, who was more inclined to “shoot the messenger” rather than address the mayhem depicted in the video. On the blog “Chalk and Talk,” Paslay urged parents and the school board to file law suits against FOX 29.  The Philadelphia School District “explicitly forbids videos of their students to be published on the internet,” Pasley noted. “I would also inform the parents of all the students shown illegally in the video — especially the parents of the students who were shown in an unflattering light — that they have the right to sue the parents of the student who shot the illegal video and that they should contact a lawyer and pursue a civil suit against Fox 29 News,” he wrote.

Paslay’s suggestions may not get much traction in court. Obtaining video illegally can bring trouble. Perhaps Philadelphia’s policy could support a claim that students had some expectation of privacy in their classroom. But FOX 29 did not engage in any conduct to obtain the video illegally. The video was provided to FOX 29 by an exasperated parent of a student, and not obtained secretly by Fox on the school campus. Generally, members of the news media have not been held liable for obtaining material that was provided by someone else. For example, in a lawsuit against the Evening Star Newspaper Co., the court would not impose liability on the newspaper for publishing the dismal academic records of six University of Maryland basketball players, where the reporters did not participate in illegally obtaining the players’ transcripts. If Judge Castel’s ruling is taken in earnest, violent altercations in a publicly-run school reported by FOX 29 is a matter of public interest.

Paslay did not completely excuse the misconduct shown in the video. “The bottom line is that this kind of student behavior, regardless of the context, is completely unacceptable,” he wrote. However, he wondered whether the misconduct was “staged” for the video, rather an accurate depiction of classroom violence.

The First Amendment and state privacy laws do not grant hyperlocal news publishers a free reign in obtaining pictures and videos of others, even if the subject matter may be newsworthy. As a general roadmap:

  • Many states protect individuals from disclosure of their privates facts that are offensive to a reasonable person and that are not a legitimate matter of public concern. A heated domestic argument is not a matter of public concern; but a public altercation on city streets may be newsworthy and be the proper subject of a news article.
  • Laws protect individuals from intrusion. Entering a person’s private home and videotaping without permission would violate this right of privacy. Likewise, entering a private area under “pre-texting” (pretending you are someone else) or bringing a hidden camera in a private location (which could be someone’s home, office or even a private restaurant setting) likewise could create liability.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice. We provide this article for news and general information only. Only an attorney who knows the details of your particular situation can provide the advice that you need. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a good introductory legal guide for hyperlocal news publishers and bloggers that is worth a review.

Brian Dengler is an attorney with Vorys Legal Counsel and journalist who covers legal issues in eMedia. He is a former vice-president of AOL, Inc., a former newspaperman, and an EMMY-winning TV journalist. He teaches new media issues as an adjunct at Kent State University and formerly at Otterbein University.


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