Student photographer detained during Virginia Tech crisis, equipment confiscated

VIRGINIA — Amid the chaos following Monday’s shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, state police apprehended a student photographer and confiscated his equipment while he was covering the story for the campus newspaper.

Shaozhuo Cui, photo editor for the Collegiate Times, was taking pictures as police evacuated Norris Hall, where a student gunman shot and killed 30 students and professors before taking his own life, when two police officers ordered him to leave. He says he was heading away from the area when they “changed their mind” and ordered him to his knees and handcuffed him.

Cui said one officer said into his radio, “We’ve got a suspect matching the profile,” according to an article in the Collegiate Times. Both Cui and the student identified as the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, are of Asian descent.

Cui was released two hours later, but without his camera, camera bag and the two forms of ID police had taken from him. He says he was told his possessions would be returned to him at a later time.

Since Monday the Collegiate Times has been working without success to retrieve Cui’s equipment, which included photographs he had taken earlier that morning after the episode began with a shooting at a residence hall across campus that left two additional people dead.

The newspaper has not been able to speak to anyone with the state police about returning the camera, said Editorial Adviser Kelly Furnas, and the newspaper’s lawyers have not reported any headway either.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said that according to the facts, police had no right to confiscate the camera, and the Collegiate Times could seek a legal injunction if authorities do not respond to the newspaper’s requests.

For the moment, however, the newspaper is hoping to resolve the situation amicably.

“There is a pretty clear problem with what happened, but we don’t want to be confrontational,” Furnas said. “What we really want is the work that our readers need.”

Cui said in a statement that he found the police’s initial response understandable given the constraints of the situation, but he objects to their decision to withhold his equipment.

“I can’t blame authorities for any of their actions, and I certainly understand that they need to do what they feel is best in a dangerous situation,” he said. “But as a student journalist, I don’t feel it’s appropriate that authorities continue to hold my camera and my work without any further explanation.”

But with all that is going on for the Collegiate Times staff, who now are both journalists covering breaking news as well as students struggling with tragedy, the camera confiscation has not warranted the attention it might otherwise.

“We haven’t had as much time to devote to exploring this as we really should,” Furnas said, adding that on Tuesday afternoon some student reporters were going home to sleep for the first time since the ordeal began Monday morning.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer