By Kevin Smith | May 27th, 2010
(This column appeared in a recent issue of the Pacific Daily News in Guam.)
I still remember that Monday morning in October, 2003 when officials from the Morgantown, W.Va. city fire department walked into our newsroom with a search warrant wanting photos taken over the weekend of a ruckus group of students celebrating a football victory.
What they were looking for were more than 400 photos taken by our three staff photographers during the melee that followed a West Virginia University win on that previous Saturday. Fires were set in dumpsters and couches were ablaze. Hoping to use our images to identify as many culprits they walked in armed with the warrant.
I managed to stall the search warrant because the photographers were away from the office and the computers were password sensitive. The fire officials were not hardnosed about it. They didn’t want to carry out entire computers, but they could have. They left and said they would return. Our lawyer intervened and using the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 we successfully quashed the search warrant and even talk of a subpoena. Cooler heads and legal minds prevailed.
But in the last two months, we’ve seen what police, bent on strong-arming newsrooms, can do in the name of their brand of justice. In April the student newspaper at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. was stormed by police and a search warrant-wielding prosecutor looking for photos of JMU students who might have been involved in a riot after a festival in that city. They took the nearly 600 images from The Breeze and were unrelenting until a number of First Amendment lawyers from the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. and support from the Society of Professional Journalists impressed upon them the Privacy Protection Act was violated and their actions were illegal.
Most recently, Guam’s KUAM suffered in intrusion into its newsroom by police officials armed again with an inappropriate search warrant. These police forced everyone from the newsroom and reportedly scoured all the desks and materials in search of a lone piece of paper.
In both cases, the police were carrying the wrong legal instrument for such attempts. In both cases, prosecutors and judges who seem to spend less time with law books and too much time watching Law and Order signed off on these illegal invasions of newsrooms.
Let’s be clear at this point. Search warrants on newsrooms violate federal law and represent an affront to the First Amendment which prohibits the making of any law that infringes on the freedom of the press. And, unreasonable search and seizure on a newsroom for its reporting materials is such a violation.
What happened in Guam and Harrisonburg has to stop. The press has to fight these violations with equal parts vigor and defiance. Aggressive lawsuits to stem this type of behavior are needed to send strong messages that America’s newsrooms are not open for invasion. Powerful messages to justice officials all the way to the benches are needed to make sure this country is not being converted into a police state where overzealous prosecutors try to arm law enforcement officials with battering rams in the form of search warrants.
What happened that day nearly seven years ago in my newsroom was my first taste of how an unlawful search can intimidate and stall a newsroom. It made us think about our vulnerability when those who uphold the law twist or ignore it to their own ends.
The Society of Professional Journalists, the largest and most dominant journalism organization in the United States, stands behind newsroom leaders when their workplaces are breached and federal law is violated. These actions have to stop or we’ve undermined more than 230 years of constitutional liberties, altered our path and crippled an entire citizenry that depends on a free press.