Va. jail officials order student reporter to hand over notes

VIRGINIA — Kelly Jasper never thought complying with a police order would open the door to judgment from fellow journalists.

But after police officials demanded she hand over her notes from a ride-along with a campus police officer, that’s exactly what happened.

Jasper, a reporter for the James Madison University Breeze, said she has received unexpected flak from colleagues and local journalists for her decision to hand over four pages of notes to Rockingham County Jail officials in the early morning hours of Oct. 3.

The Privacy Protection Act prohibits law enforcement officers from confiscating reporters’ notes except in exceptional circumstances. Journalists often go to extreme lengths, even serving jail time, to avoid handing over their notes, tapes and film.

Following a midnight ride-along with JMU campus police lieutenant R.N. Landes, Jasper spent approximately 15 minutes interviewing university students being booked in the jail. As she was leaving with Landes to resume the ride-along, Jasper said she was approached by a jailer and asked to turn over her reporter’s notebook.

Reporters, the jailer said, are not allowed in the jail, so Jasper should not have been allowed to take notes inside either. But Jasper thought she was following protocol.

“I didn’t ask for names, ages or addresses,” Jasper said of the conversations she had with the students, many of whom were being booked on alcohol-related charges. “There was nothing on any particular arrest. [The jail] is called the ‘drunk tank,’ and I was there to find out what it was like.”

At first Jasper refused to hand over her notes; there was nothing in them that would violate anyone’s privacy, she said, but was told that did not matter. After deliberating over the pages, which Jasper said contained mostly anecdotal stories and scene-setting details, she decided she could write a story without them and ripped out the four pages that detailed her experience inside the jail.

“She wanted to look through the rest of my notebook,” Jasper said of the jailer. “When I told her I wanted to talk to [the sheriff], I was laughed at.”

The pages were returned the next day, but Jasper’s story — a minute-by-minute account of the ride-along — had already been written for the newspaper’s Oct. 4 edition. The story included a paragraph about the incident:

1:30 a.m. Notes Confiscated

Landes leads me into the county jail and I watch as two people are booked. A jailer approaches me and, though I was invited into the office, I’m told to leave and four pages of notes are confiscated.

Jasper said she received no apology from the police. She said she is more interested in having the police make a public statement about the incident.

“We are still seeking a formal statement that [the police] were in the wrong here because we don’t want to create a precedent that it’s OK to treat a student journalist, any journalist, like this,” Jasper said.

“Unfortunately as a student journalist, you grow up with a lot of this.”

Breeze adviser Flip DeLuca said the relationship between the newspaper and campus police is generally amicable.

“They respect the media’s right of access,” he said, and student reporters have not had difficulty obtaining police records or crime statistics. Of Jasper’s situation at the county jail, DeLuca said both journalists and police personnel need to know their own rights.

Had she been confident in her right to report at the jail, Jasper might not have felt obligated to give up her notes, he said.

“If [it was] a lobby that the general public has access to, she would have the right to be there,” he said.

Roger Soenksen, the Breeze’s legal adviser and JMU media law professor, agreed. He said he hopes student journalists will learn from this situation and will be more cautious of handing over notes, even when given an apparently legitimate reason by an authority figure.

“In either case, she was invited by a law enforcement officer who had the right of access and had the right to bring in this particular individual,” he said.