Every week, Student Press Law Center attorneys answer a frequently asked question about student media law in “Ask SPLC.”
Q: Our publication has posted online photos of police brutality protests in our city, and we are receiving requests from politically active students to blur the faces of protesters who can be identified in the photos. Are we legally required to blur these photos or to refrain from publishing photos of protesters in the future when their faces are visible?
A: Legally, if the protesters were in a public place when you took these photos, they have a severely minimized expectation of privacy and you are within your rights to publish photos showing their faces. Just as they have the right to protest in public, you have the right to document their actions.
There is some debate among journalists, however, over the ethics of showing faces of protestors. Although people who participate in protests and other public events do so knowing they are taking the risk of being identified, journalists should always be mindful of the duty to minimize harm. It is important to realize that there are legitimate concerns that some populations have when it comes to being identified in photos like these. Consider what your goal is in your coverage and what sorts of photos you will need to accomplish that goal. Do you need to use up close photos, or will a zoomed out shot accomplish what you are seeking?
It may be helpful to come up with a policy as a staff about how to document these kinds of protests and stick to that as you move forward.
For more about your rights while covering protests, check out our full guide.
Legal questions should be directed toward SPLC’s legal hotline. Ask SPLC questions will be selected based on trends in the legal hotline. The legal hotline is confidential and no identifying information will be used in the Ask SPLC segment.