Two student journalists received an apology fromthe commander of Fairfax County police May 14 after one of his officers seizedthe students’ digital camera and deleted photographs they took of an incidentinvolving eight police cars surrounding what appeared to be five students neartheir school.
“Obviously, what we did was wrong,” Capt. Arthur Hurlock,the West Springfield District commander, said outside Annandale High School,The Washington Post reported.
Annandale High School seniors KyleSmeallie and Paul Gleason said they were driving on a road about one-quartermile from their school on May 11 when they saw the police cars.
Thinkingit might be related to recent violence involving a nearby gang, the tworetrieved a digital camera from their school. They drove by the scene twice, andSmeallie snapped 12 photographs.
An officer then pulled them over andasked to see the camera, and Smeallie handed it over, Gleason said. The twoidentified themselves as reporters for The A-Blast, the student newspaperat the Northern Virginia school. The officer carried the camera to where anotherofficer was standing, and the two talked for about 10 to 15 minutes, saidGleason, the paper’s editor in chief.
The other officer approached thestudent journalists and said they “shouldn’t be putting pictures of theirfriends in the newspaper.” Gleason said the officer threatened to call theirhigh school principal and that “come tomorrow, you won’t be working on thenewspaper staff.”
The officer returned the camera, and as the two droveaway, Smeallie, the paper’s news editor, discovered that the 12 photos had beendeleted. They returned to the scene and asked the officer for his name. Whenasked about the photos, Gleason said the officer claimed he “accidentally”deleted them.
“It’s impossible to delete them accidentally,” Gleasonsaid. “On our camera, you have to know what you’re doing to delete apicture.”
Public Information Officer Mary Ann Jennings said FairfaxCounty police officers receive training on the rights of journalists and how tointeract with the media. She said department policy contains nothing that wouldmake officers believe they can seize a journalist’s camera or delete anyphotographs.
“As far as the department is concerned, no officer has everbeen told to do that,” Jennings said. “It’s just not part of our culture aroundhere.”
Gleason said he doubts the incident would have happened if he werenot a student journalist.
“I think that [the officer] knew he was in thewrong, and he didn’t expect us to say anything about it,” Gleason said. “Heexpected us to be scared and to not know our rights. I’m sure he would neverhave done that if we were obviously adults and if we hadn’t identified ourselvesas high school journalists.”
Gleason said he hopes the Fairfax Countypolice learn that student journalists have rights too.
“We want to makeit clear that just because we’re high school journalists doesn’t mean we don’thave the rights of other journalists, or anyone else for that matter,” Gleasonsaid.
SPLC View: Despite their files being deleted, the studentshere reacted to this situation flawlessly. In all but the most extremecircumstances, journalists should obey the orders of law enforcement officials,but quickly and formally contest any perceived wrongdoing. Police NEVER have theright to delete newsgathering materials at a news event and it showed realcourage under pressure on the part of the students to recognize that andimmediately challenge the officer’s conduct. While the pictures may be gone, onehopes that the lesson conveyed to law enforcement officials by the students islong-lasting.