By Donald W. Meyers | April 20th, 2010
It sounds like a story you’d hear out of some totalitarian regime: The police storm a newsroom, threaten journalists and make off with newsroom documents.
Unfortunately it happened in Virginia. Ironically, at a university named for James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and author of the First Amendment.
Rockingham County Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst and 10 police officers raided the newsroom of The Breeze, the student newspaper at James Madison University demanding pictures of an off-campus riot April 10. Editor Katie Thisdell the Breeze’s editor, had earlier told Garst that the only pictures the paper would release were the ones that had already been published, and she pointed out the police took their own pictures instead.
Instead of getting a subpoena, which the paper could move to quash, Garsh obtained a search warrant and came down with a police goon squad to execute it. When Thisdell objected, Garst threatened to take the newspaper’s equipment. In the end, the paper turned over 900 pictures.
Since then, the Student Press Law Center has stepped in to represent the student journalists, and an agreement was struck that the pictures are in the hands of a third party while the legal issues are sorted out.
Frank LaMonte, SPLC’s executive director, said the raid likely violated the federal Privacy Protection Act, which makes it illegal to search newsrooms without first getting a subpoena.
Instead, we get Garst using tactics better suited to Nazi Germany than the United States, where the press is considered a watchdog on government and not an investigative branch of the police department.
Ideally, Garst should drop the demand immediately, return the photos and any copies she has made of them, and then she and the police chief both need to issue formal, public apologies for trampling on basic human rights.
Thanks to The Roanoke Times for the heads-up.