Police confiscate journalist's naked photos

Officers seize film, saying pictures of nude woman are evidence; university apologizes to newspaper

ILLINOIS -- Northern Illinois University officials admitted violating the First Amendment after confiscating film from a school newspaper photographer in May.

The film contained pictures of a graduate student who took off all her clothes to protest remarks made by a speaker at a religious debate on campus. Because the police arrived too late to identify the woman, an officer approached Northern Star photography editor Kevin Slattery and asked for his camera. When he refused, a few plain-clothed officers arrived and told him if he did not give up the camera he would be arrested.

"I was upset because I didn't know my rights," Slattery said. "I knew something had gone wrong, that they were doing a procedure that was completely wrong."

Slattery wasn't the only one who knew something was not right. Star editor in chief Joe Biesk, who had been kept abreast of the situation by a Starreporter over the phone, said he was "furious."

"I felt really angry," Biesk said. "I felt like we were in a police state under martial law. I felt betrayed. The very people who are supposed to enforce the law and protect our freedoms were the same ones arbitrarily disregarding one of the very cornerstones of our nation-the First Amendment."

Biesk said he and the managing editor of the Starran over to the police station and successfully argued that a photographer's film is protected by the First Amendment and cannot legally be seized without a subpoena.

"At first, they didn't seem to even want to consider the possibility that they were wrong," Biesk said. "They simply said the film contained evidence for a crime that was committed. They tried to make me feel like I was in the wrong for being angry or upset. That made me even angrier."

Nearly three hours after the photographer had taken pictures of the debate and protester, the film was returned undeveloped.

Melanie Magara, a university spokeswoman, said even though it was an unfortunate experience, it taught the officers a lesson.

"It became absolutely clear to the [police] chief, within a very short period of time, that an error had been made, and the film was returned," Magara said. "I think it had the best possible conclusion it could have had not only because the Star got their film back [and] did not delay publication, but also because it provided a learning experience."

The Star staff, which was able to meet its deadline, learned a valuable lesson about the rights of the press, Staradviser Jim Killam said.

"I think the initial questions when this happened was, 'Hey can they do that?' And we all together said no," Killam said. "But it's good to find the reasoning behind that. You can study that type of thing in a classroom, but until it's in your face you don't learn it as deeply as in that type of a situation."

Slattery said he will be more apprehensive when dealing with administrators and campus police in the future.

"I learned not to believe in law enforcement and school officials when they say that something is truth and this is what's going to happen," Slattery said. "They claimed to know something and they didn't. They outright lied to me and made me feel like I was doing wrong, and I was actually just doing my job."

But the students were not the only ones who will be more apprehensive in the future. Magara said the situation also educated the officers.

"I really think from everything that I've heard, this boils down to an officer on the scene at a fairly confusing event that made an inappropriate decision," Magara said. "While that was unfortunate, I do think it provided a leaning experience for the campus police."

Even though Magara said the officers learned a lot from the experience, Killam believes there is more the university has learn about press freedom.

"On the part of the university, yeah, I was happy with the result, and we're still having some conversations," Killam said. "The opinion of the administrators was we'll give you the film back this time. But if the case had been more serious, we believe we have the right to confiscate film like that, and we disagree very much with that."

Killam would not elaborate on who in the administration felt that way, but Magara said she has not received that impression at all, adding that she believes there are certain circumstances in which the police's actions would be lawful.

"I don't know who gave Jim that impression," Magara said. "I suspect that there are times when photographs can be deemed legal material evidence, but I don't know what the law concerning that is so I can't really comment on that."

Fall 2000, reports