Police seize photos from student newspaper in Virginia

by Jordan Fifer, , Roanoke Times

ROANOKE, VA - At least half a dozen police officers and the Rockingham County commonwealth's attorney raided the offices of James Madison University's student newspaper Friday, confiscating hundreds of photos of an off-campus riot last weekend, the paper's editor said.

Katie Thisdell, editor-in-chief of The Breeze and a 2007 graduate of Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, said Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst came Friday morning armed with a search warrant after Thisdell refused Thursday to hand over newspaper photos of the April 10 brawl.

At least 30 people were arrested and more than 40 injured when the off-campus spring gathering of more than 8,000 people turned into a melee, prompting police to don riot gear and launch tear gas at the crowd. About 200 officers tried to quash the rioting, which lasted for several hours. Police officers were injured, property was damaged and JMU's president issued a statement saying the incident was "an embarrassment."

"People were throwing bottles at the police," Thisdell said. "It was pretty crazy."

The Breeze reported throughout the week on the incident, and Thisdell said she believes her photographers were the only news outlet to have captured the drama.

Thisdell, who also was a staff member and editor for The Roanoke Times' teen page The Edge while in high school, said Garst phoned her Thursday to request photos from the rioting, but Thisdell declined, noting in part that police had taken their own photos, some of which were distributed to local media.

"I said that the only ones that we were going to release at this time were the ones that were on our Web site and the ones that were already published," she said. "I didn't feel like it was our responsibility to give information to the police and be the investigators for them."

Friday morning, Thisdell said, Garst and police officers executed a search warrant for photos of the riot at her newspaper's offices.

"I said ... I don't have to give you these photos right now," Thisdell said. "I can consult with legal counsel."

But Garst appeared prepared to take all of the newspaper's equipment, Thisdell said, so she complied. Officers copied more than 900 images from computer hard drives, only about 600 of which were from the riot.

Garst could not be reached Saturday for comment, but she told The (Harrisonburg) Daily News-Record the search was "an attempt to get the violent criminals off the streets so they don't hurt anyone else. The pictures were sought to identify those responsible for the violent crimes associated with the weekend riot."

Thisdell said she is being represented by attorneys from the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, an organization that provides legal assistance to student newspapers.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the center, said in a statement that the search was likely a violation of the Privacy Protection Act, a "federal anti-newsroom search law" that generally makes it illegal for government officials to search news organizations without a subpoena.

"To intimidate student journalists with a massive show of force and with no time to consult legal counsel is grossly improper," he said.

Thisdell said the affidavit justifying the warrant was sealed.

"The community was really upset about what happened," she said. "I understand that they want to find all these people. But this is between what's right and what's wrong."

SPJ is outraged by police raid of student newspaper in Virginia

The Society of Professional Journalists condemns the raid made by Virginia police and Marsha Garst, Commonwealth's Attorney for Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg, of the James Madison University student newspaper, The Breeze. According to The Roanoke Times, officers confiscated more than 900 photographs, over 600 of which were of the Springfest riot on April 10. The following is a letter the Society sent to Garst:

Marsha L. Garst
Commonwealth's Attorney for Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg

Dear Ms. Garst:

The leadership of the Society of Professional Journalists is outraged by your actions when you barged into the offices of The Breeze at James Madison University on Friday, April 16, 2010 and seized over 900 published and unpublished photos from the newsroom. We are especially troubled that your actions appeared to have violated the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980.

The office of the Commonwealth s Attorney has trampled on the freedom of the press by trying to use this media outlet as an arm of law enforcement. In a democratic society it is vital to have an unfettered press free to exercise the First Amendment without fear of government intervention.

We recognize the need to investigate an out-of-control public event where crimes may have been committed but there are more appropriate tools available to law enforcement than to bully the student newspaper.

We would like to point out that your own state s constitution says that, The freedoms of speech and of the press are among the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained except by despotic governments.

We ask that you return ALL of the materials, as well as copies, taken during your raid and issue an apology to the student newspaper, its staff and the University community.

Sincerely,

Kevin Smith
SPJ President

Sue Kopen Katcef
SPJ Campus Adviser At-Large

George Daniels
SPJ Campus Adviser At-Large

Neil Ralston
SPJ Vice President of Campus Chapter Affairs

Bill McCloskey
SPJ Director At-Large

article originally published at Roanoke Times.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey