After Student’s Arrest, Is It OK to Post His Facebook Photo?

A faculty adviser for a campus newspaper in California is currently in an ethical muddle.  As he explained on a popular college media list-serv earlier this week: A student at his university was expelled for marijuana possession and sales. The paper of course is planning related coverage.

In the adviser’s words, “The student’s Facebook page has a privacy setting, but one of our editors is his FB ‘friend,’ giving her access to a (smiling) mugshot of the student that [the paper] would like to run with the story. . . . Are there ethical/legal problems with publishing that Facebook image?

My take: You should absolutely run the photo.  Discretion may not be this student’s strong point (exhibit A, pot bust), but he must certainly be aware that anything he posts on social media has the potential to ‘get out.’  Regardless of specific privacy settings, being on Facebook in 2011 is a public act.  You are not really in control of the pics, vids, profile info, and status updates you post.

As long as the photo is not obscene or also includes an innocent person or shows the student in a strange light without context, I don’t have any ethical problem with running it.  Do I think papers should grab and publish random Facebook photos of students without cause and permission?  Nope.  It’s just bad taste.

But when students become newsworthy– via an arrest, an expulsion, a student government election, a tragic car crash– their Facebook images and updates are invaluable pieces of information that can (and should!) be utilized for related stories.

One Response to “After Student’s Arrest, Is It OK to Post His Facebook Photo?”
  1. I am also curious about this and have not seen a definitive answer.

    In practice, I agree with Mr. Reimold, particularly insofar as the journalist gleans photos or text that is available to the general public via social networks. As a weekly newspaper writer, I on several occasions gathered (and the paper published) Facebook profile pics that corresponded to people accused of crimes. We did so with a mind to the philosophy espoused by Mr. Reimold: that people who post their information to social networks — and especially forward-facing information like a profile picture — ought to know and expect that their information is, for all intents and purposes, a matter of public record.

    One law firm writes: ” Facebook’s Privacy Policy states that if the user leaves the default privacy settings as “everyone”, then the information becomes publicly available information, and may be accessed by everyone on the internet (not just Facebook users), be indexed by search engines, and imported, exported, distributed and redistributed by anyone without any privacy limitations in place.”


    However I get a sense that news organizations are becoming more apprehensive about publishing photos from networks like Facebook and Twitter. Some sources say the journalist should take into account the privacy settings surrounding the photo. A journalist who bypasses privacy restrictions to gain access to photos that its owner has deemed “private” could perhaps be accused of invasion of privacy or infringement of copyright.

    The Press Complaints Commission, an independent and voluntary regulatory body for British newspapers, has said:

    “It can be acceptable in some circumstances for the press to publish information taken from [social media] websites, even if the material was originally intended for a small group of acquaintances rather than a mass audience.

    “This is normally, however, when the individual concerned has come to public attention as a result of their own actions, or are otherwise relevant to an incident currently in the news when they may expect to be the subject of some media scrutiny.”

    The PCC added that journalists must also take into consideration whether a photo is “innocuous and used simply to illustrate what someone looks like” saying in such a case “it is less likely that publication will amount to a privacy intrusion”.

    ( Source: )

    Can anyone else shed more definitive light on this? Has this question been tested in court?