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VA prosecutor, police seize newspaper photos

Jenna Johnson

A Virginia prosecutor and at least seven police officers seized more than 900 unpublished photographs from the James Madison University student newspaper Friday morning, according to student editors at The Breeze.

Editor-in-Chief Katie Thisdell said Rockingham County Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst arrived at the newsroom Friday morning with a search warrant and threatened to seize all cameras, computers and other documents if the student staff did not release unpublished photographs from a block party last weekend that turned violent.

At least 17 people were arrested in connection with the party, which was documented by students and others in dozens of publicly available You Tube videos and photos posted on Facebook. Police had said they would study these videos and photos to find other potential suspects.

"It's not our responsibility as journalists to provide this information to the police," Thisdell said.

Rather than risk losing equipment needed to produce twice-weekly publication, Thisdell said, she showed the officers how to access the digital photos, which were copied onto a CD.

"Basically, I didn't have any other choice," she said. "We can't put out a newspaper without our equipment."

Garst could not be reached by phone at her office Friday evening and did not respond to an e-mail. A spokeswoman for the Harrisonburg police department referred all questions to Garst. A university spokesman said Friday evening confirmed the search but said he had no details.

Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a non profit group that offers legal advice to student journalists, said in a statement that he believed "the search likely" violated the federal Privacy Protection Act, which he said prohibits searching a newsroom for unpublished information.

Thisdell said she provided Garst with a copy of the act Friday morning but the prosecutor continued with the search.

Typically, LoMonte said, prosecutors obtain a subpoena for wanted items and allow the media organization a reasonable amount of time to respond. There is also no urgency to obtaining the photographs, he said, especially because the student-police clash was documented in already published photos and public videos online.

"This isn't an ongoing hostage situation. We're talking about, essentially, a drunken fistfight that's in the past," LoMonte said. "This is one of the more outrageous cases I have seen lately."

UPDATED at 11:51 p.m. Not all of the officers were uniformed as was originally reported.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  April 16, 2010; 9:12 PM ET
Categories:  Campus Media  | Tags: James Madison  
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See why the ACLU and Watchdog groups are needed?

Chairman Mao/Fidel/Joe Stalin would be proud of Rockingham County Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst.

Sieg Heil Herr Fraulein...

Posted by: kahlua87 | April 17, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

While not condoning the crowd's behavior, this is a total waste of resources. Arrests were made at the time of the incident. There are more serious crimes that could use the attention of law enforcement. It seems that the path of least resistance is always taken.

Posted by: mackmarks | April 17, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Part of the problem is that these local prosecutors always have to worry about how their actions will affect their re-election prospects.

Storm-trooper enforcement tactics against unpopular groups (e.g. uppity college kids in backwater Virginia) will always be a popular vote-getter.

A lot of crowd-pleasing heavy-handed 'justice' happens in America because local prosecutors are elected offices.

Posted by: 12008N1 | April 17, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I hope this story gets better attention then the back of the Metro section.

Posted by: BigBubba1 | April 17, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

The general idea is that reporters and news organizations aren't supposed to be the tools of police and prosecutors. This is an example of news gatherers doing the work and a local prosecutor seizing the work product as a convenience. A fight at a kegger doesn't justify the search and the judge should not have approved the search warrant. Besides, there are hours of video on YouTube that is voluntarily posted there by the recorders.

I still don't know why the police were originally called there.

Posted by: blasmaic | April 17, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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