A hollow victory in the Breeze

Column by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net
 

The staff at the student newspaper at JMU seems to be trying to claim victory in its settlement with Harrisonburg-Rockingham Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst regarding a dispute over photos of an April riot that were seized by Garst’s office.

Reality check – Garst got her photos. 

“While the Privacy Protection Act would have allowed us to sue various officials involved in the April 16th seizure, we have strongly preferred to resolve this matter informally through discussions with the Commonwealth’s Attorney. We are pleased that we were able to do so, and to put this matter behind us,” Breeze editor Katie Thisdell said in a statement yesterday announcing the settlement with the Commonwealth’s Attorney office, in which the office agreed to cover $10,000 in legal fees incurred by the paper to fight the seizure and the Breeze agreed to provide Garst’s office with access to 20 photos taken by Breeze staff at the April Springfest riot.

Key phrase there – that the paper is happy to “put the matter” to rest. Which comes on the heels of so much bluster and bombast from First Amendment scholar types who a few weeks ago went on and on about the paper seemed to have had a good case to make under the Privacy Protection Act to be able to protect all of its photos seized in the April 16 raid of the Breeze offices. 

Case in point: “The press is not to be the mere handmaiden of the state. It’s not their job to be law enforcement. It’s their job to simply report, to inform the public. They’re not a governmental investigatory arm. If anything, they’re supposed to investigate and monitor the government, not be a quasi-arm of the government,” said David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, who told AugustaFreePress.com in an April interview that he thought the Breeze had a “good PPA argument.”

“This is an attempt to conscript the Fourth Estate and force them to do the government’s work, basically. Which I think is an abuse of power,” Hudson said. 

The agreement between the Breeze and Garst’s office effectively had the paper doing the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s work. That much was clear in the statement from Garst released on Tuesday.

“These additional materials will hopefully allow the law enforcement community to bring violent criminals to justice,” Garst said in the statement. 

The promise from Garst to abide by the letter of the law in the PPA in the future rings hollow in consideration of what she was able to get out of her office’s heavy-handed actions. The resolution to this matter, in my view, sets the cause of a free press back quite a bit.

The overreaching hand of law enforcement needed to be slapped on its wrist at the least; in place of the slap on the wrist, instead, it gets a hand up in the form of a not-so-subtle reminder of what news organizations and private citizens are up against when trying to stand up to the power of our government. 

There’s the ability to print money and the time and staff (provided by we, the people!) needed to fight a case all the way to the Supreme Court, for starters.

I don’t blame the Breeze kids for giving in. I just wish that they hadn’t, that’s all.


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