Police seize reporters' photos, notes

Without the backing of professional news organizations, student journalists often find themselves at the mercy of government officials who refuse to treat them as other professional reporters.

Instead, these reporters and photographers are subject to increased scrutiny over their rights to document and obtain information. Sometimes, these rights are even blatantly violated.

When student photographer Amanda Stratford took a digital picture of two men taking down an American flag at a campaign event at Southwest Missouri State University’s campus, she had no idea the men were stealing the flag and that her digital image of the crime would be seized by the police without a search warrant.

After the event Stratford heard the police talking about a stolen flag. She showed her picture to the police using her digital camera, and the police said they had to take her disk. Stratford refused, but the police seized the disk anyway.

The police returned her disk within two days, but Stratford said she did not receive an apology.

Experts say the growing number of cases where reporters’ notes or images are confiscated — indicates a lack of understanding of the federal Privacy Protection Act, which protects journalists from undue search and seizure of their reporting materials.

Enacted in 1980, the act prohibits state and local law enforcement officers from performing searches or seizing materials from reporters, broadcasters and authors. The act does warrant some exceptions; if police believe the individual will destroy the evidence or if the police believe that the individual in possession of the evidence committed a crime, the limitations of the law do not apply.

University of Missouri media law Professor Sandra Davidson said none of the exceptions were arguable in Stratford’s case. In a case like this the police should have asked a judge to issue a subpoena for the photograph, Davidson said.

“There’s often unnecessary tension between the police and reporters,” she said. “It’s just up to the police now to obey the law.”

Critics say the trouble is that many police officers are not familiar with the Privacy Protection Act, or that their focus is elsewhere. Springfield Police Department Public Relations Officer Matt Brown said the police’s main concern was the victim’s rights.

But a journalist’s rights “need to be something the police can be aware of,” Stratford said.

Photographers are not the only journalists hindered by police actions. Reporters often face the same unnecessary restrictions in their quest to write a story.

In Virginia, a James Madison University student’s notes were confiscated during a ride-along with campus police in the early morning hours of Oct. 3.

Kelly Jasper, a reporter for the Breeze, was interviewing students being booked at the Rockingham County Jail for alcohol-related offenses when a jailer told her to hand over her notes.

“It caught me off-guard,” Jasper said about the request. “I had been invited [into the jail].”

When she explained that she was merely collecting anecdotal comments from students about being arrested — not asking for names, ages or addresses — she was told reporters were not allowed in the jail and was again asked for her notes.

Jasper decided she could write a story without the notes and ripped out four pages of notes specifically from the jail visit.

“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.”

Her story, published Oct. 4, included a description of the incident. Police officials returned her notes the same day.

Looking back, Jasper said she knew she was under no legal obligation to relinquish her notes, but she said she did not want to make a scene.

Jasper said fellow journalists and even local reporters have expressed criticism over her decision to give up her notes.

“I knew, and I still agree now, that you don’t hand over your notes,” she said. “I have received a lot of criticism for giving over those four pages. But I had specific reasons at the time.

“I knew they were wrong. At the same time, while being a reporter for the Breeze, I wouldn’t do anything to tarnish the paper’s reputation.”

Breeze legal adviser and JMU media law professor Roger Soenksen said it is up to student journalists to stand up for their rights and not be intimidated by authority figures. While he agrees Jasper had a legal right to be at the jail, he also said it is up to journalists to assert their First Amendment rights.

“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.

Jasper said she wants a statement from the department that its actions were unwarranted.

“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.”