Evidence of Things Not Seen

Georgia House Bill 1332 and the crime-scene censorship debate

Last month, lawmakers in Georgia swiftly approved House Bill 1332—called the “Meredith Emerson Privacy Act.” The bill aims to limit media access to the state’s most gruesome crime-scene and autopsy photographs. In that, it raises anew a question that has become increasingly relevant in the digital age: How do we balance individual privacy with the public’s right to know?

House Bill 1332 came about when Hustler magazine hired true-crime writer Fred Rosen to report and write a story about twenty-four-year-old Meredith Emerson, who was murdered while hiking near the Appalachian Trail in 2008. This February, Rosen filed an open-records request to view not only the autopsy report, but also the crime-scene photographs of Emerson’s nude, decapitated body. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations denied Rosen’s request. And the request riled up state legislators, too, who pushed for—and, in mid-March, passed unanimously (163-0)—H.B. 1332. As a result, at this point, only credentialed press members can view the photos, without removing or copying them, while under the strict supervision of a GBI records custodian.

The bill’s passage offers a look at the current state of America’s ongoing crime-scene censorship battle. The arguments, when simplified, go like this: On the one hand, crime-scene photos can help reporters understand crimes better, while also holding accountable public officials and medical examiners. On the other, the photos can degrade the victims and their families. In other words, they’re an invasion of privacy. Both arguments are valid; what they overlook, however, is that privacy cases eschew generalization. Each crime-scene scenario must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Today, the major argument for keeping these grim—and often debasing—images private is to prevent them from being published online, where they can quickly spread via social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Consider the case of Nikki Catsouras, who died in a high-speed car crash in 2006. After two highway patrolmen shared horrific photos of the scene, the images circulated the Internet. More than 2,500 Web sites eventually posted them.

Other times, however, publishing a crime-scene photo or video can serve an important, if not necessarily essential, purpose. Take Carlie Brucia, an eleven-year-old girl whose abduction in 2004 was captured on video by a security camera. When Brucia was discovered dead four days later, the clip was broadcast worldwide. Its circulation led to the arrest of Joseph Smith, who, without the footage, may never have been found.

House Bill 1332, when considered alongside the cases of Catsouras and Brucia, makes sense. The images of Emerson, had they been released, would likely have circulated the blogosphere, just as Catsouras’s did. What’s more, because Emerson’s killer was quickly caught—unlike Brucia’s—there was no criminal-justice argument for broadcasting the stark scene. Still, though, that doesn’t mean we should let an opportunity for debate on the matter pass us by. The bill’s unanimous passage might have ended debate in the Georgia Legislature; that doesn’t mean it should end among the media. The blogosphere can act as a valuable back-channel for conversation even when a news peg has passed us by. With Facebook and the like, the viral potential of information these days introduces a whole set of legal and ethical questions, the core of which is: What should remain private in a world where everything could be public?

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Spencer Bailey is a student in the spring Media Criticism course at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.