As with the video of the fatal luge run at the Olympics, as with 9-11 videos of the Twin Towers crashing down, pundits, lawyers and family members of a victim are arguing in courts of law and public opinion that the visual record of their loved one’s death should be off-limits for public. The family of Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld trainer who was drowned last month by a six-ton Killer Whale that held her underwater by her ponytail, has announced that they will seek an injunction to stop the release of the death videos, captured by SeaWorld’s surveillance cameras on Feb. 24. Once the official investigation is complete, the video could be made widely available on YouTube and elsewhere. The family understandably does not want their daughter’s last moments to become a source of web entertainment.
Lines usually have to be drawn somewhere, and the controversies over public release of the autopsy photos of NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt and circulation of accident scene photos of the mangled body of 18-year-old Nikki Catsour raise important issues that are significantly different those posed by the SeaWorld video. Earnhardt was a public figure whose death evoked high public interest, but an autopsy is a medical procedure, and that is a sphere where special privacy is well-established. The questions surrounding Catsour’s death photos are more on point, but her accident was not a national news story, and the only reason for viewing them was their pure gruesomeness. Even in those cases, however, the crux of the debate is censorship, and whether the sensitivities, however legitimate, of a few should restrict information—and photos and videos are information—from being revealed to the public.
This should be obvious. America’s freedom and the liberty of its citizens depends on our access to information, and every restriction to that access creates a threat. The media itself has shown that it cannot be trusted to judge what we should read, see and hear: it often withholds the names of women who report rapes in high-profile cases, for example, even when it has often turned out that the accused were the victims, as in the Duke lacrosse fiasco. Many media outlets disgracefully (and cravenly) refused to publish the Danish cartoons that enraged Muslim extremists, arguing that it would be “insensitive” to so, even though the controversy could not be understood without seeing the actual drawings. Although the law currently makes distinctions among printed matter, photographs and videos regarding First Amendment protections, there should be no confusion: blocking the circulation of any of them once they are part of the public record is censorship. We don’t want the government telling us that we can’t see or hear things “for our own good,” and the ideals of the United States similarly hold that the government shouldn’t be using the feelings of one person or family to justify censorship either.
Here is the kind of reasoning that should concern us: “Certain speech is not as valuable as other speech, and I think we need to say that,” Newsweek quotes legal scholar Dan Solove as saying. “And while [the release of such imagery] may satisfy a morbid curiosity, I don’t think it really serves a great purpose otherwise.” And who is going to determine which speech is valuable enough to have Constitutional protection? Solove? He doesn’t “think it really serves a great purpose”—how is anyone to know whether he is right or not, unless they can see and read and hear what he has passed judgment on?
I can certainly empathize with Brancheau family’s desire to protect their daughter’s dignity. Once her death became a national news story as well as the catalyst for ethical and policy debates about the use of animals in entertainment, however, the video became news information. Would the family want particularly lurid or vividly described verbal accounts of their daughter’s death prohibited? Maybe they would, and maybe if we let them block the video, the next family trying to forget a tragedy will see if they can get that sensitivity stretched just a little bit farther.
As Poynter Online’s Kelly McBride argues, the right to see the video is more important than the video itself. Similarly, the rights of the rest of America to be informed—and not to have media censors or government bureaucrats decide what is “important” enough to let us be informed about—should take ethical and legal precedence over the sensitivities of grieving families.
I think for any of us as individuals, the Golden Rule should apply. We can individually choose to respect the Brancheau’s wishes and their daughter’s dignity by not watching the video. We should also, however, respect the autonomy and judgment of everyone else, who must have the right to make their own decision about what is “important” for them to see.