Newsroom search stopped before it started
- A West Virginia newspaper fought a search warrant seeking photos of a post-college football game riot.
Oct. 30, 2003 — City officials in Morgantown, W.Va., failed in their attempt to search the newsroom of The Dominion Post for photographs of students rioting and setting fires after a football game between West Virginia University and Virginia Tech on Oct. 23.
The Post refused to comply with the warrant, served Tuesday, and informed officials from the city’s Fire Department that the search would violate the federal Privacy Protection Act. The newspaper called the Reporters Committee legal defense hotline for information about the act after receiving the warrant, and consulted with counsel. By the end of the day, the Fire Department dropped the warrant and declined to seek a subpoena to obtain the photos.
The Privacy Protection Act prevents state and local law enforcement officials from conducting searches and seizures of reporters’ work and documentary materials, except in limited circumstances. The act defines documentary materials to include photographs.
The search warrant, issued by Municipal Court Judge Steve Higgins, was served by the Morgantown Fire Department in an effort to obtain The Post‘s photos of the aftermath of the game. While investigating those who may have been involved in setting the fires, the Fire Department was advised by the county prosecutor’s office to obtain a search warrant to obtain the newspaper’s work.
The Morgantown Fire Department responded to 75 fires set by West Virginia University fans following the game, which WVU won. Firefighters were struck with objects thrown by rioting students, and city police officers were struck with bottles and cans of beer. Police arrested 24 people (19 students), while the Fire Department cited 14 people (11 students) for illegal burning.
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press