Police issue search warrant to obtain information from Missouri student newspaper

MISSOURI — Earlier this month, police demanded student journalists at Northwest Missouri State turn over documents detailing a journalism professor’s Facebook post that contained a joking reference to shooting people on campus.

On another professor’s Facebook page, journalism professor Matt Rouch wrote, in discussing his anticipation of the fall school term: “By October, I’ll be wanting to get to the top of the bell tower with a high powered rifle – with a good scope, and probably a gatling gun as well.” When a member of The Northwest Missourian saw the post, he took a screenshot and the staff decided to write about it.

Northwest Missourian Editor-in-Chief Trey Williams said he called the university police to ask whether they had seen the post, at which point university police Chief Clarence Green asked him to provide police with a screenshot of the Facebook post. After conversations with newspaper’s adviser, Williams said he refused to do so.

Williams said Green indicated he would get a subpoena for the screenshot if the paper did not turn it over.

“It was why I ended up having the discussion with my adviser,” Williams said. “I thought they were trying to strong-arm me as a student journalist.”

The next day, university police kept their word and confronted Williams with a search warrant, he said. Williams then turned over the screenshot, and the column ran the next day, Sept. 5. The column did not identify the name of the professor.

“I didn’t think they actually would, but it turns out they actually did eventually,” Williams said. “I’ve never been served with any sort of official court document or search warrant or anything, so I don’t know how I really feel about it.”

University police declined to answer questions about the search warrant and referred all questions to the school’s communications office.

Spokeswoman Mitzi Lutz said the police department’s decision was “straightforward.”

“We requested the information based on the public posting nature and the need to ensure university safety,” she said.

Missouri does not have a shield statute that protects reporters from having to divulge information about their reporting. The federal Privacy Protection Act, established in 1980, protects media from searches by law enforcement and other government officials, unless a judge believes the information presents a risk to national security, the journalist in possession of the desired information is committing a crime, or that imminent death is likely unless government employees immediately retrieve the information.

Student Press Law Center attorney advocate Adam Goldstein said the department’s use of the warrant is exactly what the PPA’s passage was designed to protect media against.

“There’s no reason why student journalists had to be the source for this information. It isn’t information that was unavailable from other sources. It isn’t information that was only in the possession of journalists,” he said. “A law enforcement officer of average intelligence ought to be able to figure out how to contact a website’s owner if they’re so interested.”

Williams said the staff decided to write about the professor because they thought the post was inappropriate, but said they didn’t think the professor should lose his job over the post.

After police obtained the post, Rouch was arrested on a terroristic threat complaint and held in the Nodaway County Jail on a 24-hour investigatory hold. A search of Rouch’s home revealed he had several marijuana plants and other items indicative of marijuana sales. He faces two felony drug-related charges as a result and has since been placed on administrative leave, the Northwest Missourian reported.

“It wasn’t our intent to get this professor fired by writing an article about (the post,)” Williams said. “I said we weren’t comfortable doing that. Originally it was our plan not to say who the professor was. We thought it was a post that was made by a professor that should not have been made.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.