ILLINOIS — Northern Illinois University officials admitted violatingthe First Amendment after confiscating film from a school newspaper photographerin May.
The film contained pictures of a graduate student who took off all herclothes to protest remarks made by a speaker at a religious debate on campus.Because the police arrived too late to identify the woman, an officer approachedNorthern Star photography editor Kevin Slattery and asked for his camera.When he refused, a few plain-clothed officers arrived and told him if hedid not give up the camera he would be arrested.
“I was upset because I didn’t know my rights,” Slattery said. “I knewsomething had gone wrong, that they were doing a procedure that was completelywrong.”
Slattery wasn’t the only one who knew something was not right. Star editorin chief Joe Biesk, who had been kept abreast of the situation by a Starreporterover the phone, said he was “furious.”
“I felt really angry,” Biesk said. “I felt like we were in a policestate under martial law. I felt betrayed. The very people who are supposedto enforce the law and protect our freedoms were the same ones arbitrarilydisregarding one of the very cornerstones of our nation-the First Amendment.”
Biesk said he and the managing editor of the Starran over tothe police station and successfully argued that a photographer’s film isprotected by the First Amendment and cannot legally be seized without asubpoena.
“At first, they didn’t seem to even want to consider the possibilitythat they were wrong,” Biesk said. “They simply said the film containedevidence for a crime that was committed. They tried to make me feel likeI was in the wrong for being angry or upset. That made me even angrier.”
Nearly three hours after the photographer had taken pictures of thedebate and protester, the film was returned undeveloped.
Melanie Magara, a university spokeswoman, said even though it was anunfortunate experience, it taught the officers a lesson.
“It became absolutely clear to the [police] chief, within a very shortperiod of time, that an error had been made, and the film was returned,”Magara said. “I think it had the best possible conclusion it could havehad not only because the Star got their film back [and] did not delay publication,but also because it provided a learning experience.”
The Star staff, which was able to meet its deadline, learned avaluable lesson about the rights of the press, Staradviser Jim Killamsaid.
“I think the initial questions when this happened was, ‘Hey can theydo that?’ And we all together said no,” Killam said. “But it’s good tofind the reasoning behind that. You can study that type of thing in a classroom,but until it’s in your face you don’t learn it as deeply as in that typeof a situation.”
Slattery said he will be more apprehensive when dealing with administratorsand campus police in the future.
“I learned not to believe in law enforcement and school officials whenthey say that something is truth and this is what’s going to happen,” Slatterysaid. “They claimed to know something and they didn’t. They outright liedto me and made me feel like I was doing wrong, and I was actually justdoing my job.”
But the students were not the only ones who will be more apprehensivein the future. Magara said the situation also educated the officers.
“I really think from everything that I’ve heard, this boils down toan officer on the scene at a fairly confusing event that made an inappropriatedecision,” Magara said. “While that was unfortunate, I do think it provideda leaning experience for the campus police.”
Even though Magara said the officers learned a lot from the experience,Killam believes there is more the university has learn about press freedom.
“On the part of the university, yeah, I was happy with the result, andwe’re still having some conversations,” Killam said. “The opinion of theadministrators was we’ll give you the film back this time. But if the casehad been more serious, we believe we have the right to confiscate filmlike that, and we disagree very much with that.”
Killam would not elaborate on who in the administration felt that way,but Magara said she has not received that impression at all, adding thatshe believes there are certain circumstances in which the police’s actionswould be lawful.
“I don’t know who gave Jim that impression,” Magara said. “I suspectthat there are times when photographs can be deemed legal material evidence,but I don’t know what the law concerning that is so I can’t really commenton that.”