BOB GARFIELD: Last week, a South Missouri State University student photographer named Amanda Stratford was assigned to shoot a campus political rally for the school newspaper, The Standard. The event was underwhelming, and Stratford's focus wandered toward the crowd. Later, she overheard a participant talking to police about a stolen American flag -- a theft, Stratford realized, she might have photographed in progress. She volunteered to let police look at the photo, but instead they seized her digital camera and its memory stick. With that, the student journalist entered the annals of conflict between media and law enforcement. The Standard sought legal counsel from the Student Press Law Center, a national organization that advises student publications, and executive director Mark Goodman joins me now. Mark, welcome to On the Media.
MARK GOODMAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, first of all, where does the case stand today?
MARK GOODMAN: Well, at this point, the police have returned the camera to the students, and they are discussing their options. I think the frustration that the students have is that the police at no point have admitted any mistake, and the fear is that this same kind of incident could very easily happen again if the police don't have some recognition that they action they took was inappropriate.
BOB GARFIELD: What action was appropriate for police to take when a photographer approaches them saying that she may potentially have evidence of a crime?
MARK GOODMAN: The issue here was the confiscation of the camera. The police wanted that camera instantaneously, even though they had seen the image already and had the information that it contained. I don't want to suggest, though, one couldn't understand the police's motivation here, but I think what we have to recognize is that has to be balanced against the journalist's obligation to be able to cover the news. We see this situation coming up very frequently with college journalists when, you know, fights or riots break out in or around college campuses as sometimes happens after major athletic events, and you know, a college newspaper photographer may very well be on the scene and get some great pictures of it. That allows the community to better understand what actually has happened here. Well, when the police demand that those photographers turn over those photos, what that does is makes it much less likely in the future that that journalist will be able to get those kind of photographs again. Suddenly, the journalist becomes an investigator for the Police Department, and folks are just not going to look at this news organization in the same way after that.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there a circumstance that would make you more comfortable about a news organization taking that risk of being associated with the police and willingly surrendering a memory stick or anything else?
MARK GOODMAN: Right. Well, you know, I think most news organizations say they have no problem with providing information that they have already published, and in fact the newspaper ultimately published this photo, and so anyone who wants to see it, can. Beyond that, though, when the law enforcement agency is asking for, you know, outtakes or unpublished photos, you know, I think it's a very rare circumstance where a journalist can sacrifice their independence, without there being really societal loss as a result of that. Now, I think many journalists, if they felt that lives were at stake or people were going to be injured as a result of information they had, would probably choose to provide that.
BOB GARFIELD: In defending its right to protect its own photographs, The Standard, the newspaper, cited the 1980 Federal Privacy Act. What does that act allow?
MARK GOODMAN: What it basically does is prohibit law enforcement officials from confiscating a journalists' work product except in very exceptional circumstances -- basically, when there is evidence that the journalist in question has committed or in the process of committing a crime to which the materials relate, or that the immediate seizure of the materials is necessary to prevent death or serious harm. Clearly neither of those were relevant in this context.
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, this happened on a college campus. The principals were a student newspaper and campus police. Does anything change if this were happening elsewhere, in you know, adult life?
MARK GOODMAN: Not at all, and I think students are perhaps a little more subject to this kind of intimidation by law enforcement officials, because they know better than to try these tricks with a commercial news organization. But the principles involved are exactly the same, and the damage to, you know, the public's right to know are no different.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Mark, thank you very much.
MARK GOODMAN: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Goodman is executive director of the Student Press Law Center headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. [MUSIC]