Less than two weeks after a Florida fire chief stormed up to PINAC reporter Jeff Gray and attempted to snatch his camera for recording a public building from a public area after making a public records request, another Florida fire chief issued a memo to employees, stating that they must respect the rights of citizens to record in public as well as their right to make public records requests.
But the timing was purely coincidental, according to a St. Johns County Fire Rescue spokesperson, whose chief issued the memo Tuesday.
St. John’s County just happens to be adjacent to Clay County, whose chief, Lorin Mock, made a spectacle of himself when he attempted to snatch Gray’s camera on January 9 in a video that so far has been viewed more than 21,000 times.
No matter what you believe, or how much you hate the press, or your dislike for people taking video or pictures of you or anything else at emergency scenes or shooting video outside your fire station, you have no legal right as firefighters, EMTs, paramedics or others in public safety to interfere with what they are doing. Even when you believe the people with the cameras are acting like jerks, if they are in a public space, shooting something that’s in public view, it is their right to do so. That has pretty much always been the case in our country and in recent years, with more and more cameras and way too many confrontations, a number of judges at various levels have reaffirmed it’s the law.
So, how come some people in public safety never get the message and end up making themselves and their organization look bad when a confrontation is captured on video? Such is the case in the video above involving a fire chief in Florida and the one below involving a detective with a prosecutor’s office in New Jersey.
In the fire chief’s case he happened to run into someone who works for the group PINAC or Photography Is Not a Crime. PINAC will “audit” or exercise the right to take pictures or video to see how a jurisdiction handles the situation. I would say in this case, not too good when he tried to take the man’s camera. Make sure you are better prepared when PINAC comes to your neighborhood.
The memo was issued by St. Johns County Fire Rescue Fire Chief Carl A. Shank on January 20, stating the following:
It is important for all officers to appropriately conduct themselves in regards to a public records request. For instances whereby someone from the public enters a Fire Rescue station requesting records, officers will immediately contact a Battalion Chief who will either try to assist the citizen or direct them to Fire Rescue Administration. Two key aspects that apply when someone is making a public records request are:
1. We cannot require that a Requestor put their request in writing. We can ask if they would like to, but if they say no, we need to take detailed notes of their oral request.
2. We cannot require that a Requestor identify themselves if they don’t want to. We can ask for contact info, and if they refuse, if the records are not of the type that can be made immediately available, they are welcome to come back at a later time, when we can either give them the records, or an estimate of the cost to compile the records, if applicable.
Once we know what the citizen is requesting in the form of a “public record”, Fire Rescue Administration will ensure that the appropriate processes are followed in the release of information. Additionally, at times we have members of the public who wish to videotape or photograph our stations or activities. In this regard, photographing and filming things that are “plainly visible in public spaces” is a constitutional right and we cannot interfere. There are, however, some caveats to this right.
Read the full memo here.
PINAC investigator Felipe Hemming reached out to St. Johns County Fire Rescue Captain Jeremy Robshaw, the department’s public information officer.
Hemming reported the following after his phone conversation Friday:
The memo was not a direct response to the video, yet it was a step to educate their staff (prevention) as to the laws of the State of Florida in Relation to Public Records and the rights of the Citizen in relation to the 1st Amendment of the US Bill of Rights. Their agency works in a proactive and prevention mindset and to avoid any missteps or misunderstandings, this memo was created to let staff understand their role and to make the aware and alert of the world around them.
Gray believes the memo proves that his tireless First Amendment audits are paying off, despite what some critics may believe.
I’m often criticized that what I do has no effect on civil rights, but this memo is a clear example that getting out there and and testing public officials’ knowledge on our rights has a positive effect.
Check out the video below.