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Legal Issues Surround JMU Riot, Raid - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Legal Issues Surround JMU Riot, Raid

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The fallout from James Madison University's Springfest riots on April 10 is far from over. The college's student newspaper is arguing its freedom of the press rights were violated last week when police showed up with a search warrant demanding hundreds of photos from the incident.

The Breeze is making headlines Monday night after the commonwealth attorney for the city of Harrisonburg and several police officers came into the student publication's newsroom on Friday demanding photos. Now the students are fighting back.

"I was surprised at the way this all happened," said Editor in Chief Katie Thisdell. "I had expected maybe a subpoena at first, so having them here in the newsroom with a search warrant was very surprising on Friday."

Authorities arrived with a search warrant Friday afternoon after Thisdell refused to hand over more than 900 photos.

"Under the Privacy Protection Act, journalists should not have to give information to the police to assist in their investigations," Thisdell said. "Journalism isn't an arm of the police force."

The authorities' actions have sparked a public outcry. The Society of Professional Journalists issued this statement directed to Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst, saying in part: "We recognize the need to investigate an out of control public event where crimes may have been committed but there are more appropriate tools available to law enforcement than to bully the student newspaper."

But one legal expert says a Supreme Court ruling dating back more than three decades may side with the police.

"Once having established this precedent, which basically declined protection for student journalists, in the Stanford Daily case there's been very little other than the Stanford Daily precedent along the way," explained Robert O'Neil of the Thomas Jefferson Center at the University of Virginia.

No matter the outcome, The Breeze's General Manager Brad Jenkins says this controversy is a learning experience for students.

"Anything it's a real life lesson for the students on how newspapers operate and how some of these issues come up," he said. "It certainly has given Katie and the other editors a chance to be able to practice that in the real world."

Over the weekend the newspaper and the commonwealth attorney's office agreed to let a third party hang onto the pictures that were confiscated from the newsroom, assuring The Breeze that they will not be used as part of the police investigation into the riots; at least for now.

Reported by Eric Fink
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Reported by Keith McGilvery
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