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College journalists negotiating over seized riot photos

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  1. Newsgathering
Attorneys representing a college newspaper and a local prosecutor agreed on Sunday to temporarily seal photographs that were seized from…

Attorneys representing a college newspaper and a local prosecutor agreed on Sunday to temporarily seal photographs that were seized from the publication’s hard drives and transfer them to a third party until further negotiations can take place, James Madison University’s The Breeze reported.

“We’re relieved that the prosecution is now talking civilly with the students and their counsel and that everyone is moving toward a resolution that will make sure the integrity of newsrooms is respected in the future,” said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte. The organization provided initial assistance to the students and put them in touch with legal representation.

The Breeze Editor-In-Chief Katie Thisdell had refused by phone an initial request to hand over images of a recent off-campus event that became unruly, injuring dozens and requiring police to disperse an 8,000-person crowd with tear gas and riot gear.

The prosecutor’s office and police executed the search warrant on Friday and confiscated 926 photos over students’ objections, but only 682 of the photos copied were of the riots, according to the paper.  

Attorneys Seth Berlin and John O’Keefe are representing Thisdell and The Breeze. SPLC’s LoMonte said the action by the commonwealth attorney’s office was likely in violation of the federal Privacy Protection Act, which specifically protects newsrooms from police searches and imposes restrictions on obtaining search warrants.

“To intimidate student journalists with a massive show of force and with no time to consult with legal counsel was grossly improper,” LoMonte said.

Thisdell said she at first refused to turn over the photos, but was told if the paper did not comply, the police would seize all the computers and electronic equipment in the office.