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Reporters Committee deplores arrest of reporter over duck story

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has written a letter to the Superintendent of the Prince William County…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has written a letter to the Superintendent of the Prince William County (Va.) School System deploring the unwarranted arrest of a Potomac News reporter who was covering a story about a controversial Woodbridge High School science experiment.

In the letter sent to School Superintendent Edward Kelly on June 12, the Committee decried the arrest of Potomac News reporter Kelly Campbell for criminal trespass.

“Reporters simply should not be arrested for doing their job,” said Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “We have asked Superintendent Kelly to use any resources at his disposal to have the charges against Ms. Campbell withdrawn and to prevent this type of incident from happening again.”

On June 6, Campbell attempted to interview Principal Karen Spillman about a biology class experiment that was claimed by some experts to be inhumane. Students in Douglas Pinion’s senior biology class were given two-day-old ducklings to care for in order to study the effects of duckling bonding with caretakers. Campbell had interviewed some experts and students who thought that this experiment was detrimental to the ducklings development as wild creatures. In order to gain the perspective of the school, Campbell sought an interview with Principal Spillman after unsuccessfully trying to reach the assistant principal by phone.

Campbell entered the school with the permission of school personnel and was only asked to leave after she asked the principal for the school’s response to charges that the duckling experiment was not appropriate. Apparently disconcerted with the subject, Spillman told Chapman to end the interview. Campbell attempted to identify the reason for her ejection from the school.

Spillman then ordered the school resource officer to remove Campbell from the premises and have her arrested. Campbell was charged with criminal trespass and kept in jail for two hours. The publisher and editor of the Potomac News attempted to meet with Campbell in jail, but were prohibited from doing so. They also were falsely told she had been released. Meanwhile, police bombarded Campbell with suggestions that she should plead guilty to the charges because no one would believe her word over Principal Spillman’s.

“Apparently, Ms. Campbell was arrested for doing what all good reporters are trained to do,” Dalglish said. “She was thrown in jail for asking: ‘Why?’”

“The Reporters Committee hopes that the Prince William County School System recognizes that this incident was an inappropriate infringement on Ms. Campbell’s right to cover a newsworthy story on behalf of the public. We also hope they make efforts to educate administrators about the appropriate way to handle future encounters with the media,” Dalglish said.

The Reporters Committee is a nonprofit organization legal defense organization for journalists that provides advice on First Amendment and Freedom of Information issues.