Make it unlawful to stand by and record emergency scenes, argues law professor

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By Polly Botsford on

Academic paper proposes legal liability for those who video terrorist attacks instead of helping victims

A visiting lecturer at Georgetown University has argued there should be a new tort of “exploitative objectification of a person in need of emergency assistance.”

Law professor Amelia J Uelmen argues in her paper, ‘Crime Spectators and the Tort of Objectification,’ that in an emergency or crime-scene situation:

Instead of assisting or calling for help [some] individuals take pictures or recordings of the victims on their cell phones… Such an interaction with a victim might in certain circumstances constitute a distinct and legally actionable harm.

The paper, featured in the UMass Law Review in the US, cites many examples where bystanders have taken out their phones and started recording events instead of intervening to help.

One incident Uelmen relays concerns Jose Robles, who was attacked on his way to work in New York in 2014. An assailant approached him, hit him in the eye, and he fell to the floor. The attacker started to kick him. Robles recounted: “He wouldn’t stop. I tried to get up again, but he… started kicking me again.”

Uelmen records that, shockingly, “a number of bystanders were watching the incident unfold — some from behind their cell phones. As Robles described the scene: ‘People were watching and they were having a good time filming.'”

The law expert also says that now there is even “an internet subculture” dedicated to “those who witness violent assaults [and] stand by to record the incidents without intervening, and then they post the videos on social media.”

She references a website named WorldStarHiphop which, according to estimates, has 3.4 million visitors and 17 million page views per day.

This research may resonate with readers given the spate of recent terror attacks carried out on UK soil. In the aftermath of the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge atrocities, social media erupted with photos and video recordings of the respective crime-scenes, some depicting seriously injured and even deceased people. Some spectators took issue; here’s a selection of tweets regarding images posted by news agency Reuters:

Currently, the legal position under the common law in both the US and the UK is that there is no positive “duty to rescue”. Law students will recall that this is not an absolute rule; omissions can amount to criminal actions in narrow circumstances (think R v Miller and R v Stone and Dobinson, for example). There are also some “good Samaritan laws” which protect people who do intervene against any liability that may arise out of any intervention.

This is not the case in a few other parts of the world. Famously in France, photographers who took snaps at the time of the fatal car collision involving the late Diana, Princess of Wales, were investigated under French laws (“non-assistance à personne en danger”) which make it a civil and criminal offence not to help someone in danger.

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