At times, there is a fine line between upholding justice and blurring the rules of law to prosecute those who break them. In an attempt to gather evidence against participants in the James Madison University riots during the Springfest celebration two weekends ago, Marsha Garst, Rockingham County's commonwealth attorney, along with several police officers, seized photos from the offices of James Madison's student newspaper, The Breeze. Of the 926 photographs taken, only 682 pertained to the riots. Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, called this action "blatantly illegal," as well as a violation of the federal Privacy Protection Act. Today, Cavalier Daily ombudsman Tim Thornton covers the legal ramifications and reprehensible intimidation tactics used during this incident in his weekly column. The Managing Board wishes to comment on how this incident impacts the journalists themselves.
In a reversal of roles, the police officers seem to have become the culprits in this situation. By strong-arming the paper to do something it was not legally obligated to do, law enforcement officials committed an irresponsible act that has undermined their credibility during this sensitive time for the James Madison community. This most recent occurrence, in addition to negative feedback about the crowd dispersal tactics during the Springfest riots, adds unnecessary tension to the relationship between law enforcement personnel and citizens.
Gurst contacted the paper Thursday to request these photos, but only ones that already had been published by the paper were supplied, said Katie Thisdell, editor-in-chief of The Breeze. Gurst responded by showing up with a search warrant Friday morning. Thisdell said she initially refused to comply citing the Privacy Protection Act, but after Gurst threatened to confiscate all computers and electronic equipment in the office, Thisdell felt she had no choice but to oblige.
The paper should not have given up the photos, but it is understandable why The Breeze would respond in such a manner: When police officers and the commonwealth's attorney show up threatening to seize files and equipment, it is not difficult to see why editors would be intimidated into giving up the information.
The Privacy Protection Act, states "it shall be unlawful for a government officer or employee, in connection with the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense, to search for or seize any work product materials possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication." Apparently, persecuting the rioters was deemed a task more important than upholding this law, and the police officials carried out the warrant. The Privacy Act, however, contains a provision that provides The Breeze with the right to "submit an affidavit setting for the basis for any contention that the materials sought are not subject to seizure." In light of this stipulation, the officers' methods appear even more questionable, as Thisdell and her staff were not afforded an opportunity to consult legal counsel.
Apart from the legal right, there is also a practical justification for newspapers to protect materials and information like photos, anonymous sources and the like. It obviously would threaten a publication's integrity to release such information to law enforcement and certainly would discourage many sources from contributing. Whenever a newspaper photographer shows up to an event, students should not have to feel as though he may be collecting evidence for a future police report.
The question of whether to give newspapers privileged immunity from evidence collection is not an easy one. Naturally, criminals should be punished in our society, and no one likes to protect wrongdoers when the evidence exists to convict them. Nevertheless, it is simply unacceptable for journalists to be stripped this level of protection from encroachment by law enforcement.
To allow police officers and local officials to use bully tactics to seize information from journalists is unacceptable. Such behavior threatens an entire enterprise that already is suffering from a number of external threats to its existence. Gurst's shortsightedness is lamentable, and in total, these kinds of actions are a great disservice to society.