Access to Crime and Emergency Scenes

Being a reporter gives you no special right of access to crime or emergency scenes on private property.  First Amendment rights do not extend to you the unrestrained right to gather information.

HOWEVER – if the public has been admitted to the property, police or other authorities may not bar you from the scene.  If the authorities are allowing members of the public access to a crime or emergency scene, they can’t keep you out.

Several important legal cases, going all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, have denied reporters the right to trespass on private property to gather news.  (See City Of Oak Creek v. Ah King explanation below.)  And, the courts have held that a person can recover from the news media damages caused by broadcasting or publishing information acquired as a result of unlawful trespass.

One of the best things you can do as a reporter is to follow the lawful orders of authorities at crime or emergency scenes.  Develop a spirit of cooperation, and you may be surprised at how authorities will reciprocate, whether it’s police, fire, or other agencies.

There was a famous case in 1985 (City of Oak Creek v. Ah King) when an airliner crashed at Mitchell Field in Milwaukee.  A TV photographer had approached to within a couple hundred yards of the crash site, and refused to follow a police officer’s order to leave the scene.  The reporter was later convicted of disorderly conduct.  Police had not allowed anyone near the scene and the court decided the photographer had no special right of access because he was a news reporter.

In the “Tips From The Pros” section of this site, you can find some great first-hand advice under the tab “Dealing With Police At Crime and Emergency Scenes”.