‘Go take pictures of birds’: Firefighter tells student reporters to beat it, refuses to give identification

Emergency vehicles outside the health center at El Camino College outside Los Angeles. Student journalists were told to "go take pictures of birds" and were threatened with arrest while trying to report on the scene. Credit: Rosemary Montalvo / The Union

CALIFORNIA — A Los Angeles county firefighter threatened student reporters with arrest and repeatedly rebuffed them while they were trying to gather information on emergency crews on campus, according to the journalists.

Emergency crews, including police and an ambulance, appeared to be responding to a medical incident at the college’s student health center. A man was seen being taken into an ambulance on a gurney, said Kevin Caparoso, Roseana Martinez and Rosemary Montalvo. All three work on The Union student newspaper at El Camino College, a community college in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles.

The firefighter who was standing nearby the scene refused to provide reporters with any identification or any information, the reporters said.

They took to Twitter shortly after the incident to explain what happened to them.

The firefighter said the students could be arrested under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal medical privacy law commonly referred to by the acronym HIPAA.

They weren’t arrested and stayed in public space, they said.

“The purpose of HIPAA is to keep medical records confidential, like your patient records,” said Sommer Ingram Dean a Student Press Law Center staff attorney. “So there’s no way that HIPAA could apply when it’s just a journalist taking photos of something they see while passing by on the street.”

Anybody has the right to take pictures in public spaces, Dean said.

“When you’re in public, you have the right to take a picture of anything you can observe,” Dean said.

I just felt very disrespected. We’re student journalists. We’re just learning, but we’re trying to inform people about what’s going on.

The firefighter told Montalvo, an assistant photo editor who was taking pictures of the scene, to “Go take pictures of birds,” she said.

“In my head I said ‘OK, we’re not going to get anywhere with him,’ so I decided to say ‘can I have your name and your badge number,” Montalvo said.

The firefighter refused, and said he intentionally was wearing nothing that would identify him, Montalvo said.

Sky Cornell, an inspector with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, had not heard about the incident when reached by the SPLC on April 3. Cornell said that the department is a public agency and all employees should usually have identification.

“Normally we will give that out if that’s requested, and everybody has that right,” Cornell said.

Speaking from experience as a paramedic, Cornell said emergency responders are in a tough spot when they’re responding to a medical emergency and someone is filming or photographing them. They are always primarily concerned with the patients safety and privacy.

“We have to respect the rights of our patients first and foremost,” Cornell said, who added he’ll look into the situation.

The students felt the firefighter was being unprofessional.

“I just felt very disrespected,” Martinez said. “We’re student journalists we’re just learning but we’re trying to inform people about what’s going on.”

For Caparoso, the outpouring of support on social media galvanized his enthusiasm for journalism.

“My morale has not been put off from journalism at all,” Caparoso said. “The good feedback we received from Twitter, alumni and professors has been great.”

Occasionally law enforcement or other emergency personnel sometimes have a legitimate safety reason to move people who are otherwise in a public area, the SPLC’s Dean said — for example if a building is on fire and at risk of collapsing, it’s best to get somewhere safe. But officials can’t just shoo journalists away, Dean said.

“You have a right to be there, and they can’t just cite random privacy laws or use the fact that they’re in positions of authority to scare you away,” Dean said.

SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at cdawson@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co.

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.