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Seized student photos sealed until agreement reached

Jenna Johnson

On Friday, Virginia authorities used a search warrant to seize more than 900 digital images James Madison University student journalists captured at violent riot near campus on April 10. But over the weekend, those images were temporarily sealed until the student newspaper, The Breeze, and the local prosecutor who led the raid can reach an agreement, The Breeze reported.

A third-party will hold the disks containing the seized images while Virginia's commonwealth attorney for the region, Marsha L. Garst, continues to advocate for the release of all or some of the photos, according to The Breeze. Garst, along with several police officers, confiscated 926 photos, 682 of which were of the party and riot. The rest were mostly photos that were published the same day, said Katie Thisdell, editor-in-chief for The Breeze.

Garst did not return phone messages left Friday evening or Monday morning.

Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the search was "pretty bizarre" and not in line with what authorities typically to do obtain unpublished information from journalists: Obtain a subpoena and then allow the media organization a reasonable amount of time to respond.

Since the Friday morning search-and-seizure, several journalism organizations have jumped to the student newspaper's defense.

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On Monday, the Society of Professional Journalists sent Garst a letter saying its leadership was "outraged" by her actions, which they say appear to violate the Privacy Protection Act of 1980. The group asked Garst to return all materials, as well as copies, that were taken from the paper and issue an apology to the newspaper, its staff and the university community.

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.

The Daily Gamecock at the University of South Carolina wrote in a staff editorial that the police had no right to seize the photos and student newspapers should be respected the same as professional papers.

We understand the whole investigation thing, but they need to understand the whole law thing before taking advantage of a student staff.

The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia wrote in a staff editorial that "the paper should not have given up the photos, but it is understandable why The Breeze would respond in such a manner:" Authorities should not be allowed to bully newspapers into helping them with investigations, they wrote.

The question of whether to give newspapers privileged immunity from evidence collection is not an easy one. Naturally, criminals should be punished in our society, and no one likes to protect wrongdoers when the evidence exists to convict them. Nevertheless, it is simply unacceptable for journalists to be stripped this level of protection from encroachment by law enforcement.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  April 19, 2010; 2:03 PM ET
Categories:  Campus Media  | Tags: James Madison University, University of South Carolina, University of Virginia  
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So if the seizure was illegal, then would the evidence not be admissable in court? Sounds like state attorney Marsha Garst took a real risk jeopardizing potential convictions by using a warrant instead of issuing a subpoena.

Posted by: millionea81 | April 20, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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