Privacy Protection Act a go-to tool for student editors





When they make you the editor of your college newspaper, one of the things they invariably forget to tell you is what to do when two truckloads of uniformed police officers show up asking to search your newsroom.

Fortunately, Katie Thisdell didn’t have to be told. The editor of James Madison University’s The Breeze for all of two weeks, Katie had her priorities exactly straight: (1) dry your hair (if, like Katie, the phone call comes when you’re in the shower), and (2) call a lawyer.

Katie’s poise under duress — a demand to turn over 900 unpublished photos of a street-party-turned-riot, under threat that every camera and computer in the newsroom would be impounded — was one thing that kept the April 16 confrontation from turning into a disaster.

The other was a timely rescue from volunteer attorneys Seth Berlin and John O’Keefe of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, two of the 150 volunteer lawyers who make up the Student Press Law Center’s Attorney Referral Network. Their legal team jumped on the case within minutes of the raid, and — after giving the Commonwealth’s Attorney a crash course on the federal law against newsroom searches — got the wrongfully seized photos returned.

There are times when, disappointingly, the professional news media fails to rally behind embattled student journalists and to appreciate what is at stake when their future colleagues are bullied and muzzled by the authorities.

Not this time. This time, the outcry from the friends of the First Amendment was immediate, unanimous — and loud.

Media outlets across the spectrum — small and large, conservative and liberal — reacted with equal revulsion to the overwhelming force marshaled to intimidate students into giving up their rights. “Much as the hooligans at JMU deserve to face justice,” the Washington Post editorialized, “there are ways to pursue it that do not involve trampling the First Amendment and intimidating college journalists.” The Star-Exponent in Culpepper, Va., said the prosecutor’s actions “made a mockery of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.” The collegiate media was equally vigilant. “We understand the whole investigation thing,” said South Carolina’s Daily Gamecock, “but they need to understand the whole law thing before taking advantage of a student staff.” The Daily Princetonian called it “a sobering reminder of the vulnerability of student publications and the importance of fighting unscrupulous police action against them.”

The Herald at Western Kentucky University pinpointed exactly why police intrusion into a newsroom cannot be justified for anything less than a life-and-death emergency: “If newspapers were subject to the constant search of police, journalists would essentially become an arm of the law instead of neutral observers of fact.”

That’s why Congress enacted the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, specifically in response to the search of a college newsroom at Stanford University — and why every student editor should get to know the PPA, and remember Katie Thisdale’s example: “Lather. Rinse. Rights.”


reports, Spring 2010