Police apologize for deleting students' photos

Journalists objected to officer's seizure of digital camera, attempts to intimidate them

VIRGINIA -- Although Paul Gleason and Kyle Smealie were only in high school at the time, they knew they had rights like any other journalist.So when a Fairfax County police officer confiscated their digital camera and deleted photos from it, they knew their rights were being violated and demanded an apology from the police department.

Gleason and Smeallie, who were seniors at Annandale High School, were driving on a road not far from their school in May when they saw a congregation of police cars. Thinking it was a newsworthy event, the two students returned to their school to retrieve a digital camera. 

The students returned to the scene and Smeallie took 12 photographs of the police officers and people at the scene.After noticing the student journalists, a police officer pulled over their vehicle and asked to see their camera, said Gleason, editor in chief of The A-Blast, a student newspaper at the northern Virginia school.

Even though the students identified themselves as reporters for the newspaper, the officer took their camera.After conferring for about 15 minutes, another officer returned to the students' vehicle and informed the students that they "shouldn't be putting pictures of their friends in the newspaper," Gleason said. 

The officer then threatened to call the student's principal and said "come tomorrow, you won't be working on the newspaper staff," Gleason said.The camera was returned to the students, only for them to find that the photos Smeallie had taken were deleted. The two students returned to the scene, where Gleason said the officer claimed he "accidentally" deleted the photos.Gleason said he doubts the incident would have happened if he were not a student journalist. 

"I think that [the officer] knew he was in the wrong, and he didn't expect us to say anything about it," Gleason said. "He expected us to be scared and to not know our rights. I'm sure he would never have done that if we were obviously adults and if we hadn't identified ourselves as high school journalists." 

The two Annandale High School students met with the Fairfax County Police Department in June, when department officials apologized about the matter.

"In the situation we were in, I tried to be a calm as possible because I knew I didn't have to argue because the Constitution would argue for me," Gleason said. "If you know what you're doing is right, and you know that you're in the right, don't be afraid when it seems like an authority figure is trying to get you to [back down]."

Gleason said the police department offered to try and recover the pictures, but the students were not able to locate the camera that they used to shoot the pictures.Gleason and Smeallie are not the first high school journalists who have had to argue their First Amendment rights to authority figures.

In March 2003, administrators confiscated a video camera used by a Coolidge Senior High School student to film potential fire code violations.The student at the Washington, D.C., school shot footage of chained school doors, which at other schools have been found in violation of the fire code. 

The footage was blacked out when the camera was returned, and he said school officials deny they tampered with it.The student said the camera was never returned to his possession, but was retrieved by the local ABC affiliate, which aired a story about the confiscation on March 31. The station reported that the videotape the student used to film the doors was blacked out, but there was some audio of school announcements on it, suggesting the footage could have been taped over. In November 1998, Dustin Jacobs and Nick Gaylord, two high school journalists from Denver, Colo., had their film confiscated by police after they took pictures of a fight.

Jacobs and Gaylord decided not to pursue the matter legally, but their developed pictures were returned to them afterward, and they received widespread support from the community and the local news media.Sherri Taylor, director of the Empire State School Press Association and a professor at Syracuse University, said Gleason and Smeallie should have been given the same courtesy that professional journalists enjoy.

"To me, it's very unfortunate that a policeman will take advantage because it's a student journalist and not a professional journalist," Taylor said. "I can't even imagine why this [officer] would have gone to that extreme or level. They would never do the same thing to a professional journalist."

Taylor said most of what high school journalists photograph is on school grounds and not in public places. Therefore, it is likely they are going to encounter a situation with school administrators rather than public police officers.

Students who are asked to give up their cameras or other material should make it clear that just because they are young or student journalists, they have the same rights as professional journalists, Taylor said.

"In the heat of the moment, everybody is making decisions really on the spur of the moment," Taylor said. "Oftentimes, [student journalists] will defer to authority because they fear authority of if they're afraid of repercussions."

Student journalists sometimes face the threat of police officers or other law enforcement officials confiscating material such as cameras, film, tape recorders and notes without a subpoena or warrant. Officials also have been known to try to take away notes and film at a news scene. Student journalists should be prepared for such a situation if they ever encounter it:
  • If a law enforcement or school official tries to confiscate your notes or film, protest the confiscation right away. Keep your cool, but such action is almost always illegal, and the official should be told so in no uncertain terms.
  • If the official insists or if you are threatened with arrest, you should hand the material over.
  • If you are forced to hand over your material, make it clear you are doing so under protest and you intend to contest their action to their superiors. Then do so.
  • For more information, visit the SPLC's Web site at http://www.splc.org

  • A-Blast, Annandale High School, Fall 2004, reports, Virginia