Free speech under fire

We at the Compass have seen the crime scene photos that resulted in three Cayman Islands firefighters being placed on “required leave” and the police discussing criminal prosecution.

The photos of the Bodden Town crime scene, which involved two Jamaican nationals in what police are calling an “apparent” murder-suicide, are gruesome and distasteful. If, as is alleged, the firefighters did in fact take the photos and distribute them online, their actions were crass, disrespectful and unprofessional.

However, they were not, as far as we can tell, criminal.

It is entirely appropriate for the Cayman Islands Fire Service to investigate the matter internally and consider appropriate disciplinary measures.

What is not appropriate is for the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service to move toward curtailing free speech or for the Director of Public Prosecutions, and consequently the courts, to decide what are proper public utterances. As the U.S. Supreme Court has learned in pornography cases, this is a winding and inexact path to go down with quicksand waiting around every bend.

We stipulate that circulation of the crime scene photos was despicable. But if free speech protections applied only to tasteful bromides and reverential platitudes, no such protections would be needed. The core function of free speech protections is to safeguard the objectionable — expressions that many find controversial, provocative or even utterly distasteful.

The intersection of firefighters, photos and iPhones is not a novel issue particular to Cayman. For example, the Washington, D.C., fire department recently rolled out a new social media policy outlining what employees can and cannot do while on the job, essentially banning them from taking photos or video of fire or accident scenes, or circulating such images, while on the clock.

In 2005, a New Jersey police officer sent a crime scene photo, involving a murder-suicide, to a civilian woman via a cell phone. The woman’s brother saw the photo and distributed it to other people in the community. The police officer received a 30-day suspension.

If the issue at hand here in Cayman is police not being able to maintain control of their crime scenes, then the police should exercise better control over who — and whose cameras — they allow in restricted areas.

Again, the proper venue for addressing this current situation is within the Fire Service, not in the office of the police commissioner or the Director of Public Prosecutions.

As long as the response to the alleged misconduct is restrained to the departmental level, the ramifications are confined to the individuals involved. Once it spreads to the criminal justice system, however, it affects all of us. (Imagine the possible implications for professional photojournalists or smart phone–toting bystanders.)

If the firefighters violated departmental policy, they should be disciplined accordingly.
However unhappy the police might be at the leaking of grisly photos, it simply does not rise to the level of a criminal offense unless police can demonstrate that it impeded its investigation or harmed the prosecution. There are already clear laws about that, so no legislating from the bench is required.

The police are not in charge of the Fire Service. They also are not in charge of telling people what they can or cannot publish — in print or online. They’re definitely not in charge of free speech in a free society.


  1. A few years back a NY Fire Fighter did the same thing and got fired then blacklisted from the fire department. Now he can’t get a job in any City as a Fireman. These things are not only distasteful but stupid..

  2. How about if it is ruled that there is a criminal case to answer?

    These actions could mean that potential jurors have already been ‘tainted’ and make any conviction next to impossible!

    This is ‘privileged’ info and certainly not for public distribution.

  3. The taking and distributing of the pictures is an internal problem and should be dealt with internally. Crime scene pictures would form part of the jurors review so no tainting there. What the police have done is point to possible subjects for a civil suit by family members who may have been traumatized by the pictures.

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