Police apologize for deleting students' photos

VIRGINIA — Although Paul Gleason and Kyle Smealie were only inhigh school at the time, they knew they had rights like any otherjournalist.So when a Fairfax County police officer confiscated theirdigital camera and deleted photos from it, they knew their rights were beingviolated and demanded an apology from the police department.

Gleason andSmeallie, who were seniors at Annandale High School, were driving on a road notfar from their school in May when they saw a congregation of police cars.Thinking it was a newsworthy event, the two students returned to theirschool to retrieve a digital camera. 

The students returned to the sceneand Smeallie took 12 photographs of the police officers and people at thescene.After noticing the student journalists, a police officer pulledover their vehicle and asked to see their camera, said Gleason, editor in chiefof The A-Blast, a student newspaper at the northern Virginiaschool.

Even though the students identified themselves as reporters forthe newspaper, the officer took their camera.After conferring for about15 minutes, another officer returned to the students’ vehicle and informed thestudents that they “shouldn’t be putting pictures of their friends in thenewspaper,” Gleason said. 

The officer then threatened to call the student’sprincipal and said “come tomorrow, you won’t be working on the newspaper staff,”Gleason said.The camera was returned to the students, only for them tofind that the photos Smeallie had taken were deleted. The two students returnedto the scene, where Gleason said the officer claimed he “accidentally” deletedthe photos.Gleason said he doubts the incident would have happened if hewere not a student journalist. 

“I think that [the officer] knew he wasin the wrong, and he didn’t expect us to say anything about it,” Gleason said.”He expected 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.” 

The two Annandale High School students metwith the Fairfax County Police Department in June, when department officialsapologized about the matter.

“In the situation we were in, I tried to bea calm as possible because I knew I didn’t have to argue because theConstitution would argue for me,” Gleason said. “If you know what you’re doingis right, and you know that you’re in the right, don’t be afraid when it seemslike an authority figure is trying to get you to [back down].”

Gleasonsaid the police department offered to try and recover the pictures, but thestudents were not able to locate the camera that they used to shoot thepictures.Gleason and Smeallie are not the first high school journalistswho have had to argue their First Amendment rights to authorityfigures.

In March 2003, administrators confiscated a video camera used bya Coolidge Senior High School student to film potential fire codeviolations.The student at the Washington, D.C., school shot footage ofchained school doors, which at other schools have been found in violation of thefire code. 

The footage was blacked out when the camera was returned, and he saidschool officials deny they tampered with it.The student said the camerawas never returned to his possession, but was retrieved by the local ABCaffiliate, which aired a story about the confiscation on March 31. The stationreported that the videotape the student used to film the doors was blacked out,but there was some audio of school announcements on it, suggesting the footagecould have been taped over. In November 1998, Dustin Jacobs and NickGaylord, two high school journalists from Denver, Colo., had their filmconfiscated by police after they took pictures of a fight.

Jacobs andGaylord decided not to pursue the matter legally, but their developed pictureswere returned to them afterward, and they received widespread support from thecommunity and the local news media.Sherri Taylor, director of the EmpireState School Press Association and a professor at Syracuse University, saidGleason and Smeallie should have been given the same courtesy that professionaljournalists enjoy.

“To me, it’s very unfortunate that a policeman willtake advantage because it’s a student journalist and not a professionaljournalist,” Taylor said. “I can’t even imagine why this [officer] would havegone to that extreme or level. They would never do the same thing to aprofessional journalist.”

Taylor said most of what high schooljournalists photograph is on school grounds and not in public places. Therefore,it is likely they are going to encounter a situation with school administratorsrather than public police officers.

Students who are asked to give uptheir cameras or other material should make it clear that just because they areyoung or student journalists, they have the same rights as professionaljournalists, Taylor said.

“In the heat of the moment, everybody is makingdecisions really on the spur of the moment,” Taylor said. “Oftentimes, [studentjournalists] will defer to authority because they fear authority of if they’reafraid of repercussions.”

Student journalists sometimes face the threat of police officers or other law enforcement officials confiscating material such as cameras, film, tape recorders and notes without a subpoena or warrant. Officials also have been known to try to take away notes and film at a news scene. Student journalists should be prepared for such a situation if they ever encounter it:

  • If a law enforcement or school official tries to confiscate your notes or film, protest the confiscation right away. Keep your cool, but such action is almost always illegal, and the official should be told so in no uncertain terms.
  • If the official insists or if you are threatened with arrest, you should hand the material over.
  • If you are forced to hand over your material, make it clear you are doing so under protest and you intend to contest their action to their superiors. Then do so.
  • For more information, visit the SPLC’s Web site at http://www.splc.org