Police were justified in seizing JMU riot photos

An off-campus block party near James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia on April 10 turned into a destructive riot, but the events that followed were far more controversial.

The annual student-organized event, Springfest, drew about 8,000 partiers. When people started damaging property, about 200 officers were dispatched to stop the riot, and at least 30 people were arrested, while more than 40 were injured, according to the Roanoke Times.

The JMU student newspaper, The Breeze, took hundreds of photos at the riot but refused to give any of the unpublished pictures to local police wanting to use the photos to identify criminals.

“I didn’t feel like it was our responsibility to give information to the police and be the investigators for them,” Editor-In-Chief Katie Thisdell said to the Times.

A search warrant was issued and several police officers and Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst raided The Breeze offices Friday and seized about 900 photos – mostly of Springfest.

The student newspaper believes its right to withhold unpublished information was violated, and several news media giants have rallied to the paper’s aid. The Student Press Law Center has offered the paper legal counsel.

But the newspaper has no real reason for withholding potential evidence from police. Protecting a confidential source is one thing, but what does the paper have to lose by not cooperating with police in this case?

Police could use the photos published online or in print, so there’s little reason why unpublished photos should be off limits, especially when it involves a criminal investigation. There is no integrity for the paper to protect in this situation, though The National Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) have joined in the newspaper’s defense.

“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,” SPJ President Kevin Smith said in a letter to Garst.

The legality of the search and seizure is somewhat in question. A similar situation involving Stanford University’s student newspaper made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1978 that papers have no special privileges other than those afforded under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Congress responded by passing the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 to restrict the use of search warrants in newsrooms, but recent court rulings have been mixed. In 2005, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that a TV station could not withhold unused tapes of a riot from police.

“While the press has the right to withhold whatever information from publication that it chooses, the exercise of that right does not grant the press a First Amendment ‘exemption’ from the ordinary duty of all citizens to furnish relevant information to a grand jury,” the court said in its ruling.

The Breeze should be willing to comply with a police investigation. The photos, which have been sealed and given to a neutral party following the backlash, should be used to catch criminals.