Access to Places: A Few Basics for Journalists

December 2, 2015

Students confronted journalists November 9, 2015, during protests at the University of Missouri after they had declared part of a public area a "safe space" and demanded not to be photographed. The incident rekindled questions and debate about journalists' First Amendment right of access to spaces.

It's not a simple subject, and one that has been controversial before — but there are a few well-established "givens" that journalists need to be aware of. Most importantly: things going on in public spaces are fair game for journalism.

The Missouri "safe space" incident caused consternation because it was an effort to violate that principle. Rather than review the incident, the WatchDog takes it as an opportunity to review the ground rules.

A key legal concept is that of a "public forum" — something journalists have a right of access to. How that is defined gets tricky at times.

One of the best practical guides to law on access to places is from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). The current edition is titled "A Reporter's Field Guide." It is online for free, but you can make a donation and support RCFP's valuable work.

Also relevant is RCFP's "Photographers' Guide to Privacy."

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