A&A: What Are Newsgathers’ Rights Regarding Private Homes Involved in Major Wildfire Area?

Q: I got a question about legal right (protected by First Amendment or any other Constitutional law) for our reporter here in California to gather news (pictures, videos) being on the private property during a recent major wild fire. We have all permissions from local authorities to gather news in a nearby burned out town (they let us in the closed area), and how we understand, we have all right to take pictures on the public property (streets and sidewalks) as if it would be any other situation. But what about walking on the private property and filming burned down homes? Can their owner potentially sue our publication for doing so?  

A: My understanding is that even where disasters are concerned, including situations where the reporter may be accompanying emergency personnel to the scene, express permission must be obtained from the owner for a journalist to enter private property.  Lack of permission may give rise to a trespass claim.  It therefore may be prudent to restrict photography to what can be seen from public spaces such as the streets and sidewalks. 

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.  

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