OHIO — The student newspaper editor at Wright State University\nreaped the rewards of standing up for the rights of her staff\nin May when she successfully retrieved film that had been confiscated\nby a law enforcement agent.
Stephanie Irwin, editor of The Guardian, Wright State’s student\nnewspaper, sent a letter demanding the return of the film after\nit was taken from a photographer on assignment.
On May 4, Diane Corey, an undercover law enforcement officer\nworking on behalf of the Wright State Department of Public Safety,\nconfiscated a roll of film from Justin Garman, a photographer\nfor The Guardian.
Garman was photographing an off-campus party that followed\nMay Daze, a university-sponsored, all-day celebration. When Garman\nsnapped a picture of Corey questioning a student, the officer\nconfiscated his film, claiming the photograph could blow her cover.
But when Garman returned to the Guardian newsroom without his\nfilm, Irwin became upset and called the Student Press Law Center\nfor assistance.
"When he told me what happened, it was the nature in which\nshe kind of strong-armed him into giving up his film" that\nmade her upset, Irwin said. "Justin didn’t know the law very\nwell, and I also wasn’t familiar with the conditions under which\na reporter had to give up his film. I called the Student Press\nlaw Center because I wanted to be sure of exactly what the law\nwas."
Irwin said she now believes Corey’s actions constituted an\nillegal search and seizure because the situation did not fall\nunder any of the scenarios outlined in the federal Privacy Protection\nAct of 1980.
The Privacy Protection Act states that law enforcement officials\nmay only confiscate film if an individual is participating in\nan illegal activity, if publication would cause physical harm\nto the photos’ subjects, or if publication risks compromising\na law enforcement officer’s undercover status.
Irwin said the photos would not compromise Corey’s undercover\nstatus because they would not be published until after the event\nwas over.
Because Garman’s photos did not meet any of the criteria outlined\nin the act-and also because they depicted a person performing\na public duty on public property-Irwin said she believes the officer\nhad no right to confiscate the film.
Irwin said she faxed a letter to Corey the following Monday\nexplaining her illegal search and seizure claim and threatening\nlegal action if the film was not returned in its undeveloped form\nbefore 5 p.m. that day.
Corey, who could not be reached for comment, complied with\nthe request and returned the undeveloped film that afternoon,\nIrwin said.
Ed Davall, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Public\nSafety’s investigative unit, apologized on behalf of the law enforcement\nagency for confiscating the film but emphasized that undercover\nagents are trained to safeguard their anonymity.
Irwin said she was glad that she demanded that the officer\nreturn the film.
"The impression I got from talking to [Garman] is it seemed\nlike she was taking advantage of his lack of knowledge of the\nlaw," she said. "When you tell them exactly what act\nthey have violated, and you are forceful enough about the return\nof the materials, then they really have no choice."