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Police seize riot photos from JMU Breeze's newsroom

April 16, 2010

VIRGINIA -- Harrisonburg Police officers and the Commonwealth's Attorney for Rockingham County, Va. executed a search warrant in the newsroom of the James Madison University student newspaper Friday, seizing photographs of a recent riot near campus.

The Breeze's Editor-in-Chief Katie Thisdell said she received a call from the office of the Commonwealth's Attorney for Rockingham County on Thursday asking for photographs of the April 10 "Springfest" rioting. Thisdell informed them that it is the Breeze's policy to release only photos already published on its Web site.

Friday morning, Thisdell arrived at the Breeze's office to find Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst and about 10 police officers with a search warrant, threatening to take all cameras, computers and documents unless students released the photographs they sought.

"I was a little intimidated at that point and I stepped outside with our general manager and I decided that I would comply and give them the images," Thisdell said.

Thisdell then showed the Commonwealth Attorney and police officers where they could find the photographs and allowed them to burn them onto CDs.

Thisdell said she had spoken with Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte and tried citing the Privacy Protection Act in an attempt to avoid surrendering the photos.

The Privacy Protection Act is a "federal anti-newsroom search law," LoMonte said. Although the Act does allow lawful warrants to be executed, the media must have ample time to obtain counsel and respond to the warrant, unlike the situation with the Breeze.

The Breeze staff is in the process of obtaining legal counsel and determining what to do next, Thisdell said.

Garst could not be reached for comment by press time and requests for comment from the Harrisonburg Police were directed to the Commonwealth Attorney's office.

By Katie Maloney, SPLC staff writer

© 2010 Student Press Law Center

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