VIRGINIA — In a public show of solidarity, several professional andstudent newspapers published editorials this week admonishing the behavior ofthe Harrisonburg Police Department and the Commonwealth’s Attorney MarshaGarst toward the James Madison University newspaper, The Breeze, lastweek.
On Friday, April 16, Garst and several police officers executed a searchwarrant in the Breeze newsroom, seeking photos of recent rioting inHarrisonburg. They threatened to take computers, cameras and more, andeventually confiscated more than 900 photographs. The photographs have sincebeen given to a third party to hold pending further negotiations between thenewspaper and the authorities.
Citing journalistic legal pillars from the First Amendment to the PrivacyProtection Act, several editorial boards have used their opinion pages to showsupport for the student journalists at the Breeze.
The Cavalier Daily, The University of Virginia
“The paper should not have given up the photos, but it isunderstandable why The Breeze would respond in such a manner: When policeofficers and the commonwealth’s attorney show up threatening to seizefiles and equipment, it is not difficult to see why editors would be intimidatedinto giving up the information …
… Apart from the legal right, there is also a practical justificationfor newspapers to protect materials and information like photos, anonymoussources and the like. It obviously would threaten a publication’sintegrity to release such information to law enforcement and certainly woulddiscourage many sources from contributing. Whenever a newspaper photographershows up to an event, students should not have to feel as though he may becollecting evidence for a future police report.”
The Daily Gamecock, University of South Carolina
“Not only did the police have no right to take the photos from thenewsroom, but they also came prepared to take the staff’s computers,cameras, documents and anything else they wanted if the staff refused to handover their photos. We understand the whole investigation thing, but they need tounderstand the whole law thing before taking advantage of a student staff…
… The Breeze may not be a national newspaper out in ‘thereal world,’ but if we want our students to be professionals and learn thelessons of a professional environment, they need to be treated assuch.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch
“The First Amendment is not some sort of immunity totem from areality show, granting journalists the license to do whatever they pleasewithout consequence. They cannot, for instance, refuse to disclose the locationof a kidnapped child under the guise of being a ‘neutral observer’of the search. Reporters and editors are members of civil society, and haveduties to it.
But that goes both ways. Journalism plays a crucial role in a democracy,and in order to do its job well it must be able to exercise certain rights andprivileges. It requires independence; it cannot be a mere appendage for otherinstitutions.”
“Newspapers, as a matter of course, don’t share unedited photos andnotes with authorities. A news staff is not an arm of the law; it is supposed tobe a neutral observer. Without that implied neutrality, many sources would clamup.
It is not unheard of for a newspaper to provide photos or other informationwhen ordered or asked to, but it is rare for law enforcement to simply seizethem, let alone threaten to shut a newspaper down to get what it wants.
Unless, of course, a commonwealth’s attorney decides her end justifies anymeans necessary.”
The News Leader
“To some, it wouldn’t appear to be a problem for newspapers to sharedocuments and images with police — especially for the investigation ofviolent crimes. Very simply, it is a problem however — because to do sowithout a legally appropriate subpoena would be to break down a wall that shouldstand between the press and the government.
The media cannot be construed or used as ‘an arm of lawenforcement,’ as the Society of Professional Journalists stated whencondemning the raid on The Breeze.
When Garst and the police officers walked into the Breeze officesand demanded images to help with their investigation, they went too far. Surelyanyone with Garst’s experience would understand that the duty to prosecute thelaw first and foremost means to follow it. Even if a judge finds the photographsshould have been handed over, this was poorly handled. Unfortunately thesejournalism students are getting extra credit in their coursework –compliments of the justice system.”
Charlottesville Daily Progress
“There is no excuse for the violence and vandalism that occurred, nomatter whether police were on hand or not. And it is no wonder if policeinitially were unprepared for the dramatic escalation of aparty-turned-riot.
But miscalculation in responding to a quickly changing event cannotaccount for the extraordinary error that occurred one week later when thecommonwealth’s attorney, armed with a search warrant and accompanied by upto a dozen police officers, descended on the offices the JMU student newspaper,the Breeze, and demanded to remove all photographs of the party …
… The U.S. Privacy Protection Act makes it unlawful to search newsroomsfor unpublished newsgathering materials. In response to a request, the paperalready had offered to give copies of published materials to police.
The law does make allowance for special needs. Authorities may obtain asubpoena for newsroom documents or photos if their case rises to a high degreeof necessity.
But authorities must by law give the media a reasonable time to reply andto have counsel represent them if desired.
This, the Rockingham County authorities failed to do.
We understand the law enforcement community’s desire to identify andprosecute all those responsible for injury and vandalism. We understand the lawenforcement community’s embarrassment at not controlling the riot morequickly and more effectively, and its desire to make an impact now.
But police and prosecutors are charged with enforcing all the law –not just the parts they may happen to like. Newsroom files are private property,too, and democracy depends on law enforcement protecting that property asdiligently as it seeks to protect a car or a building from a mob.”