Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bringing Home the Bacon and Bezek

April 20, 2010, 8:00 a.m.

Protecting the Press from the Police
(brought to you by FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com*)

TONIGHT! -- Superintendent; School Board; ICCSD; Mark Bezek

For background, and a list of the questions I'd put to Bezek if I had a couple hours with him, see "How To Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010, and "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010.

"Finalists for the Iowa City Schools superintendent job will meet with the public and the school board at 6:15 p.m. beginning today at the district's central administrative offices.

Mark Bezek, superintendent of the Elk River, Minn., School District, will appear today at a meet-and-greet with the community at 6:15 p.m. . . . The session will be followed by an interview with the school board at 7 p.m. The interview will be open to the public but no comments will be taken . . .." Excerpts from "Mark Bezek Interview is Tonight," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 20, 2010.

The ICCSD Central Administrative Offices are located in the first city block immediately south of the Post Office (between Clinton and Dubuque Streets). The other two of the three finalists will go through a similar procedure Wednesday and Thursday evenings: Steve Murley, superintendent of the Wausau, Wis., School District, and Brad Meeks, superintendent of the Farmington, Minn., School District, respectively. For brief bios on each of the three see links from the two blog entries linked above.

City High's New Principal; (with James Bond delivery) Plugge Brings Home the Bacon, John Bacon; Mark Hanson's Mystery

In some ways even bigger local school news is the announcement that Lemme Elementary's well-regarded principal, and City High grad (1992) John Bacon, will likely be named to replace Mark Hanson as City High's principal next fall.

At least for City High's parents, teachers and students that is likely to have more direct impact on their day-to-day lives and interactions with the District than the Board's choice of superintendent.

Meanwhile, the departure of City High's current principal, Mark Hanson, who has his own devoted band of fans, remains a mystery. This is the second time (since I've been watching the local schools) that a City High principal has mysteriously disappeared. We'll wish John Bacon better luck, longevity and transparency as some of his former teachers receive him back as their principal. (Photo credit: Iowa City Press-Citizen.) Rob Daniel, "Lemme's Bacon Likely to Be City's Principal," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 20, 2010.

Protecting Student Papers' Confidential Sources, Photos, Outtakes

Meanwhile, news comes from the East (James Madison University's The Breeze newspaper) and the West (Huffington Post) of a police raid on the offices of yet another student newspaper.

This ought to be a major focus of our local papers -- especially The Daily Iowan -- but I've yet to see any local stories about it.

Our Constitution, courts and legislative bodies struggle with the balance between the First Amendment values served by protecting the confidentiality of reporters sources, notes, photos and video outtakes, on the one hand, and the national security and law enforcement benefits of making them available to law enforcement officials, on the other.

The benefits, to all of us, of protecting their confidentiality is that once the media is seen by the public as an arm of law enforcement, once we know that what we tell a reporter may end up in a police file -- or as evidence in a court trial -- sources tend to dry up, recordings of interviews and reporters' notes, extra photos and video may be destroyed, or never created in the first place. (As Breeze editor Katie Thisdell succinctly put it in Aaron Koepper's story, linked below, “I decided I was not going to release them because I felt that it wasn’t our mission. We shouldn’t be the arm of the police.”) To the extent sources dry up, ultimately it is we, the reading, listening and viewing public, that end up being less well informed. (Of course, this all assumes that (a) we're not talking about a reporter or her employer having violated the law and withholding evidence for those self-serving purposes, and (b) we are talking about what did not make it into the paper, or on air.)

The benefits to law enforcement to having access to the media's raw material is that this source of names, photos, and other information may be the only source available -- or at least the most voluminous. And it is so much easier and cheaper to search through a newspaper's files than to have to go out and do original investigations and information gathering on their own. Of course, a part of the reason this is true is that potential witnesses are more willing to talk to reporters than police -- which is a part of the reason for protecting those confidences (but also a reason why the sources may be especially valuable).

This is a nuanced area of the law. The outcome in any given case is one of those situations in the law where the answer comes back, "Well, it depends." Sometimes there is an effort to strike a balance: Does law enforcement really need this information? Have they exhausted all other sources? How significant is the crime? Is there reason to believe the request is little more than a fishing expedition? Might a judge look through the potential evidence first to ascertain what is, and is not, central to the case? Can the search warrant be limited to nothing more than the absolute essentials?

In short, there is a recognition that the media is special, that it is worthy of some deference when it comes to routine search warrants and subpoenas -- but that it is not totally immune from the obligations all citizens have to cooperate with law enforcement efforts and judicial proceedings.

In this instance, The Breeze has photos of a large disturbance which local police wanted to see in order to find individuals to prosecute. The paper refused. The local prosecutor got a search warrant, entered the student paper's premises and threatened to take all of its computers if the staff would not provide the police copies of all the photos it had.

The paper now has legal counsel, and The Breeze reports, "In an agreement reached between the attorney for the commonwealth and The Breeze’s attorney, the images seized during Friday’s raid on The Breeze office have been temporarily sealed until a further agreement can be reached. According to Katie Thisdell, editor-in-chief for The Breeze, the attorney’s agreed Sunday to have a third-party source hold the seized disks, while the commonwealth’s attorney continues to press for the release of at least some of them." Aaron Koepper, "Breeze Receives Legal Counsel After Friday's Raid," The Breeze, April 19, 2010.

For additional reporting on the matter, see Jordan Fifter, "Police seize riot photos from JMU student newspaper; Officers took hundreds of photographs taken by The Breeze during last week's off-campus riot," The Roanoke Times, April 17, 2010; Leah Finnegan, "JMU Newsroom RAID: Police Seize Riot Photographs," Huffington Post, April 19, 2010; Adam Goldstein, "Search Warrant Served on Student Newsroom Violates Federal Law," Huffington Post, April 16, 2010.

For the Supreme Court case that gave rise to the law ("Privacy Protection Act") that Goldstein alleges was violated by the Commonwealth Attorney and seven policemen showing up at the school paper and threatening to remove their computers (before they could get legal counsel), see Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547 (1978).

The Privacy Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000aa, linked above, was Congress' response, essentially overturning, or at least substantially modifying, the Zurcher, decision. For more of the history and discussion, see "The Privacy Protection Act of 1980," Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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