“At least half a dozen police officers and the Rockingham County commonwealth’s attorney raided the offices of James Madison University’s student newspaper Friday, confiscating hundreds of photos of an off-campus riot last weekend, the paper’s editor said,” according to a Roanoke Times article published Sunday.
Why? Because the editor-in-chief of The Breeze (a twice-weekly newspaper that prints 9,500 copies of each issue), Katie Thisdell, refused to turn over photos of the April 10 event, so Attorney General Marsha Garst went to the paper’s office wielding a search warrant. The Breeze had reported on what happened all week, according to the Times report, “and Thisdell said she believes her photographers were the only news outlet to have captured the drama.”
What happened exactly?
“At least 30 people were arrested and more than 40 injured when the off-campus spring gathering of more than 8,000 people turned into a melee, prompting police to don riot gear and launch tear gas at the crowd. About 200 officers tried to quash the rioting, which lasted for several hours. Police officers were injured, property was damaged and JMU’s president issued a statement saying the incident was ‘an embarrassment,'” the article said.
It was probably an embarrassment because, as another Times article reported, “The headline on the paper the following Monday said ‘War Zone,’ and the photo showed student revelers whooping it up around a giant bonfire. The issue appeared as prospective students toured campus, a coincidence that Thisdell said did not give her pause about running the story of student mayhem out front. ‘We’re not going to put a photo of [school mascot] Duke Dog on the front page,’ she said. ‘That’s not our job.'”
Did the AG and the police have the right to storm the newspaper and confiscate the photos? No, and Thisdell tried to tell them so.
“I said that the only ones that we were going to release at this time were the ones that were on our Web site and the ones that were already published,” she said in the article. “I didn’t feel like it was our responsibility to give information to the police and be the investigators for them.”
That should have been enough, but then the AG began to bully the student journalists.
“I said … I don’t have to give you these photos right now,” Thisdell said in the report. “I can consult with legal counsel.”
AG Garst didn’t go for that. In fact, Thisdell said she thought the AG was going to take the newspaper’s equipment, which would have prevented the paper from being produced. This prompted Thisdell to allow the officers access to the paper’s photos.
The officers “copied more than 900 images from computer hard drives, only about 600 of which were from the riot.”
Doing what they did is a gross misuse of power. Bullying journalists, especially student journalists, is wrong, and not allowing someone the opportunity to consult legal counsel in a situation such as this makes the situation even worse.
AG Garst tried to rationalize what happened by saying it was “an attempt to get the violent criminals off the streets so they don’t hurt anyone else. The pictures were sought to identify those responsible for the violent crimes associated with the weekend riot.”
Regardless of the claims being made, what AG Garst did was not just, and Thisdell is rightfully seeking legal assistance from the Student Press Law Center.
In the Times’ article, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte “said in a statement that the search was likely a violation of the Privacy Protection Act, a ‘federal anti-newsroom search law’ that generally makes it illegal for government officials to search news organizations without a subpoena. ‘To intimidate student journalists with a massive show of force and with no time to consult legal counsel is grossly improper,’ he said.”
This is yet another case for a national Shield Law. These student journalists should not have been subjected to this kind of treatment.
What they were forced to do is outrageous, and steps should be taken to prevent anything like this from happening again.
This was “just the sort of government menace to the press that the framers of the Constitution feared,” as a Washington Post editorial said.
Such actions on the part of AG Garst are a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because “state courts have recognized that newspapers may withhold materials from the government unless officials make a compelling case to the contrary, a process that is supposed to play out in court in response to a subpoena. In this case there was no subpoena, no court arguments . . . federal law requires that officials give news outlets time to prepare arguments and seek relief in court before they barge into newsrooms. That law, the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, was enacted specifically in response to a raid on a college newspaper,” the editorial said.
AG Garst did back down a few days after the seizure, but the damage has been done. Her actions could chill the First Amendment on the JMU campus and could have farther reaching affects as other attorney generals might think they too can get away with such poor judgment and behavior.
We can only hope such events won’t unfold and congratulate Thisdell on standing up for her rights as a journalist as long as she could.