Larger Lesson of the Breeze Newsroom Raid, Legal Battle

In an agreement reached earlier this month, the county prosecutor responsible for the recent raiding of the newsroom housing The Breeze student newspaper at James Madison University has offered an apology with four zeros behind it.

As numerous reports confirm, the state of Virginia will pay the $10,000 legal fees accrued by the Breeze in its fight against the sudden late April photo seizure.  The basics of that incident: Police and a prosecutor with a search warrant she had no right to waive around stormed into the Breeze newsroom at JMU.  They digitally burned hundreds of unpublished photos taken by staffers during the recent school-block-party-turned-riot, Springfest. Inexplicably, they also burned lots of other photos unrelated to the event. Breeze staffers were forced to watch, mad and mystified, while their intellectual property was taken.

Fortunately, the paper fought back, with the help of the Student Press Law Center and a D.C. legal firm- and it seems to have prevailed.  All photos deemed unessential to the Springfest shakedown have been returned. Promises have been made to not bust into a student newsroom in the future without a subpoena.  And as The News Virginian noted, “The Washington-based attorney for the Breeze said the most important piece of the settlement between the student newspaper and [the prosecutor] was her admission that a seizure of photos wasn’t the right way to go.”  Specifically, the prosecutor “issued a statement . . . expressing regret for the ‘fear and concern that I caused the Breeze and its staff.'”

My take: Student journalism haters, take note.  There is a larger lesson to be gleaned from this saga and others like it over the past academic year. Nowadays, when a breeze becomes a storm and student press freedom is threatened or torn, j-students will not sit quietly or throw up their ink-stained hands in defeat. They have the organizational structure, outside legal and advocacy group support, professional media backing, and the power of the web to enable misdeeds aimed at collegemediatopia to become known and earn mass condemnation (and a related PR nightmare).

Too many school administrators, outside professionals, and law enforcement still wrongly believe that they can outsmart, intimidate or just ignore student media when they want their way.  The county prosecutor in this case is a perfect example.  She would have never burst into a professional newsroom like she decided she could do to the Breeze.  She no doubt thought she could simply run roughshod over a bunch of kids, legality be damned.  That line of thinking cost her $10,000 and a more invaluable loss of political clout and public respect.

Simply put, it is tougher than ever to mess with the student press.

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