April 20, 2010

Don’t Shoot The Breeze

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When Marsha Garst — a commonwealth attorney in Virginia who is investigating a violent riot at James Madison University — and the Harrisonburg (Va.) police officers barged into the newsroom of the JMU student newspaper and demanded the newspaper’s unpublished photos of the riot, intimidation of student journalists was not the only offense she committed. She may very well have broken a federal law.

The Privacy Protection Act is not exactly a well-known statute, but Garst is a lawyer, after all. She must have known there were complications to the request for photos — she brought along seven police officers — and would have been well-served to look into the legal issues ahead of time. If she was ignorant of the law before arriving at The Breeze’s newsroom on the morning of April 16, she was enlightened soon thereafter — editor-in-chief Katie Thisdell presented Garst with a copy and explanation of the Privacy Protection Act. Garst reportedly responded by saying The Breeze could turn over its photos or the police would confiscate all the computers, cameras and documents in the newsroom. Thisdell allowed the police to copy the photos.

This is a blatant abuse of power by the authorities, an attempt to intimidate young journalists who were uncertain about their legal standing in the matter and were not given time to contact an attorney. This conscious over-extension of authority perpetrated by Garst and the Harrisonburg Police Department sets a bad example for other investigators looking for help from a local newspaper in an ongoing investigation.

In all likelihood, The Breeze had the law on its side in the encounter, but the paper’s editors can be forgiven for backing down. Faced with a choice of giving up the photos or halting publication indefinitely (the police officers would have essentially confiscated the entire newsroom), the editors made the right choice. However, the entire situation begs the question: If The Breeze was run by professionals rather than college students, would Garst have showed up at the newsroom door with seven police officers, a search warrant and the threat to confiscate all of the publication’s computers, cameras and documents?

Hopefully, the forces of justice will fall on the side of the free press. The photos, which have yet to be used in the police investigation, have been turned over to a third party until a judge can rule on the issue. The case has not officially begun, but legal experts and newspaper editorials have come out swinging on behalf of The Breeze — Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center and an attorney, called it “one of the more outrageous cases I have seen lately.” If the case swings in favor of the First Amendment and The Breeze, Garst will likely be fined at least $1,000, in addition to The Breeze’s legal fees.

Ideally, this situation — wherein a student newspaper’s unpublished photographs were reportedly necessary to the prosecution’s case — will never arise again, but that might be asking for too much. At the least, we should be more prepared should history repeat itself: Garst and company paid for an expensive lesson in the freedom of the press, even when the press is run by students. As Thisdell told the Washington Post in the aftermath of the incident, “It’s not our responsibility as journalists to provide this information to the police.”