Class Discussion: Police Raid Student Newspaper

The Roanoke Times reported on Sunday that:

“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.”

Much has been written and blogged about since this occurred, and, of course, we have our own tape confiscation incident this semester to provide even more context.

My friend, George Miller of Temple University, posted this question on his blog:  “Should Journalists Cooperate With Police?”

Please weigh in on his blog as well as on the comments board here with your thoughts.  How should the editor have responded?  What rights do student journalists have when intimidation tactics are used by police and other authority figures?  How can student journalists combat such tactics?


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15 Responses to Class Discussion: Police Raid Student Newspaper

  1. Danielle Kahn says:

    I think people blogging about this issue is important because it allows people to post their opinions and thoughts while they’re getting information.

    I disagreed with a comment on George Miller’s blog where the person said they didn’t think the warrant violated the Privacy Protection act because they didn’t not see a threat of censorship. I think that it does pose a threat because allowing police to take whatever they want from a newsroom can create a chilling affect leading journalists to not cover things because they feared that law enforcement would confiscate it.

    I think the editor responded correctly in not voluntarily handing over the photos. I think she had the right to deny them to the police and I think that student journalists also have the right to refuse to hand over their own work. They can combat these tactics by knowing their first amendment rights and relying on their professors/editors to support them in their decisions.

  2. Niina Heikkinen says:

    I think that the editor from the student paper was acting correctly by refusing to release the photos of the riot. One of the people that commented on this story made a good point in saying that the police only have the right to seize photos of an event if no other photographic evidence exists. While there may not have been other news organizations present, there were certainly other witnesses who could have provided the information present in the seized photographs.

    I also think it is important on principle that the police should be denied access to photographs or notes without a subpoena. For instance, consider if the student newspaper had been working on an investigative piece that involved the police station or local government. If the police felt that they had the capability of seizing the information against them, they probably would to prevent a public scandal.

    As a student journalist, I can understand the pressure that this student must have been under to give in to the police. It is difficult to feel like you have professional rights when the people you are dealing with are treating you like you are a child who doesn’t know the rules.
    Probably the best way to stand up for student journalists’ rights is to be able to refer to professionals in the field or to legal help if necessary. Student journalists must also be very clear about what their rights of ownership are over their own work so that they can recognize when someone is lying to them about what the law is. That way they will feel like they are justified in standing up for themselves even in the face of intimidation.

  3. Mike Gardner says:

    It’s unfortunate that the police in this situation don’t understand the role of journalism in society. Journalism exists to act as a watch dog over those with power, like police, not to aid in police investigations.

    If police consistently blur this line and force journalism outlets to give up their material, the integrity of journalism will be compromised. No longer will people be able to trust journalists to watch over the powerful if we begin working with them.

    In this particular case, I understand why the editor finally gave in. Intimidation is a huge factor and no matter how they may have believed in their position, a police raid can be paralyzing.

    Unfortunately, student journalists find themselves at the mercy of those in charge at the university. The best they can do now is to educate the community on the role of journalism and make people understand that they do not exist as an extension of the police. Students need to learn their rights and figure out how far they can push an issue like this, and whether refusing during the police raid would be within their rights.

  4. Gillian Ball says:

    In my Ethics class, we have been discussing whether or not journalists should have the legal right to protect their sources. Although this incident is not exactly that, I do believe it falls on the same principal, if you replace “sources” with “information,” where the information here is the photos. I believe that they should have this right. After reading the article, I think the editor acted properly by refusing to give up the photos.
    The intention of the journalists is not to get in the way of the police, but to stand up against intimidation and force used to take their information. As a student, I especially feel for the newspaper because student journalists often face intimidation and lack of professional respect. The problem here is that students may not know their rights as citizens as well as journalists, and the police can combine that with intimidation to obstruct those rights.

  5. The journalists in this situation have obviously found themselves in a ethical debate. While it is understandable why the police would want the photos for their investigation, it is not the newspapers’ job to assist them in their jobs. The photos taken by the newspaper were not all made public; some were necessary to remain private for the safety and privacy of those involved. The police had also taken their own photos, and it isn’t fair of them to try and basically bully the newspaper into being their investigators. They’re hired for a reason and it is not the journalists’ responsibility to hand over unpublished work to the police. The riot in question was not a mass murder; if that had been the case then this would have been an entirely different situation. But nobody was seriously injured, and it isn’t fair that the police are using their ‘superiority factor’ to seize these unpublished photographs.

  6. Alex Tillotson says:

    I think that journalists should try to cooperate with police, but part of this is knowing your rights and being able to say that you’d like to have a meeting with your editor and the person that’s trying to confiscate the material. You also need to know that you have the right to talk to an attorney if something like this happens. I think that it’s also important to not risk your entire career for one piece of information. I know that personally, I’m probably too much of a chicken not to give the authorities something if they’re threatening to arrest me. I just don’t think it’d be worth it. Especially if you can get the information again in another way, without others finding out, as sneaky as that may seem.

  7. Dave Brinch says:

    In my opinion, I feel that the editor of the newspaper was justified in refusing the authorities the photographs, and feel that the police most likely used intimidation tactics in order to get what they wanted. The editor should have held onto the pictures, and tried to put the authorities in touch with someone higher up. In this case, the newspaper could not do their job by informing readers without the pictures, therefore, the authorities were preventing the journalists from doing their job. I think in some ways, journalists should cooperate with police. For instance, if a newspaper has information regarding a missing person, they should help the police so that they can get leads. After this, the authorities might come back and give the media outlet information, creating a working relationship. But in this case, I feel that the police had no right in confiscating the pictures.

  8. Alex Holden says:

    The police have no right to confiscate materials from a journalist in a public forum. There is no room for interpretation when we hear “freedom of the press.”

    The police are intimidating by the nature of their position. Other people in positions of authority are also intimidating by the nature of their positions like the Director of IT at Umass. Intimidation does not give anyone the right to confiscate materials unless their is a legal court order.

    The editor responded well by not turning over her materials. In that kind of pressure situation, I know from experience, you tend to want to please the authority figure mainly because of that intimidation factor, the prospect of getting in trouble, and also generally not knowing exactly what your rights are as a journalist.

  9. Rebecca Babin says:

    I think it was pretty amazing and definitely the right thing to do for the paper’s editor to not cooperate with the police from the beginning. Journalists have legal protection from turning over their sources and materials under the First Amendment. Why should the way the police treat a student newspaper be any different from the way they would treat the New York Time?

    I know it is very expensive, but the newspaper editor should definitely acquired a lawyer for the paper to help advice them through this process.

    It is really challenging as a student to stand up to the police and authority figures because 1. We often don’t know our rights and 2. We don’t want to rock the boat. I think it is really important for student journalists to familiarize themselves with the rights they have so they know how to defend themselves properly.

    Workshops should be offered through journalism departments at universities and there can be training made available by student news publications.

  10. daniellemk says:

    Cases like this one are important because the police are forcing the journalists involved to become a branch of government, to aid in the investigation. Journalists work for the people, and not for the government and when this line becomes blurred, like in this instance – where the police are using the journalist’s work to identify suspects, it can create a chilling effect through out the industry. Journalists will feel they need to always be destroying their notes, etc. in case the gov’t decides they want them. And, sources may not want to allow journalists to cover events. Journalists have a right to their work, which is why it is required for the government to get a subpoena, which can be appealed, and not just a search warrant when entering a news room.

  11. Cases like this one are important because the police are forcing the journalists involved to become a branch of government, to aid in the investigation. Journalists work for the people, and not for the government and when this line becomes blurred, like in this instance – where the police are using the journalist’s work to identify suspects, it can create a chilling effect through out the industry. Journalists will feel they need to always be destroying their notes, etc. in case the gov’t decides they want them. And, sources may not want to allow journalists to cover events. Journalists have a right to their work, which is why it is required for the government to get a subpoena, which can be appealed, and not just a search warrant when entering a news room.

  12. Caitlin Quinn says:

    I completely understand why the editor eventually gave up the photos, as intimidation is a very bug factor especially for students.

    However, it’s clear that resisting to give up the content as much as possible was the right thing to do, as the newspaper had a right to keep and protect their own property. Ethics on the police’s end clearly come into question, since the content of the photos could contain questionable actions by the police at the riot.

  13. Max Bitter says:

    While I’m not willing to jump to the “Animal Farm” conclusions reached by some of the more reactionary commenters on the original story, this is definitely a troubling issue. I have a generally positive outlook on law enforcement in this country, however, and maybe it’s that optimist in me, but I don’t think there was any “barging in” or “raiding” going on here. The officials got the required warrant, got the images in question, returned them, and as far as I can tell, did not stand in the way of journalism. The editor is not obligated to comply with the police requests without a warrant, but if the police can provide a legitimate reason for needing the images (such as identifying criminals if people are hurt in the riots, as Dan P. suggested on Miller’s blog), I really don’t see any police wrongdoing here. This is a very different situation from the tapes being confiscated by the university, meanwhile, which was not done with any law enforcement in mind, and where the journalists in question, in my opinion, were not obligated to comply without a warrant. Student journalists need to be better aware of their legal rights so they can know when they need to comply and when to stand tough.

  14. Elyse Horowitz says:

    What worries me about this situation is that student journalists are being compromised. If the police had attempted to gain photographs from a publicly distributed newspaper with a reputable name and paid employees, I feel that there would have been a greater amount of lawful support of the journalists. Often, students are unaware of their rights, especially as journalists, and fold to the requests of adults with higher influence. It says a lot that the editor in chief knew enough to tell the police about the newspaper’s policy at the beginning of the issue. However, it seems that this spurred the police on to follow up with excessive legalities that made it difficult for students to refuse.
    Personally, I think that I would have been just as hesitant to go against a formal police order if a situation were to come to that. However, I have always found that being cooperative with people I work with from the start can go far.

  15. Nick Powers says:

    Cooperation with the police, in this case, can be taken either way. For one, it makes perfect sense as to why the police would want to obtain video of the riots, perhaps thinking that the rowdy JMU occurrence is one that makes them look bad for the lack of control showed in the video. On the other hand, ethics must come into discussion here as well, and one must ask themselves whether or not it is morally right for the police to forcefully take video from the student newspaper.

    I believe that the editor could have stood their ground and refused to give up the tapes, unless there was some sort of investigation that required the police needing the tapes to try and pinpoint certain crimes that were committed. However, if that were the case, just taking the tapes by force rather than asking the editor and other student journalists to cooperate puts a black eye on the department.

    If you think about it, the “raid” on the newspaper actually gives the editor and the students another interesting angle to write stories on. Imagine: “Police Raid Newspaper; Students Shaken Up”. Okay, maybe not, but the raid is still something worth discussing and writing about, that’s for sure.

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