Your Decision: Whose Photo Is It?
period in the locker room, a scuffle took place between three students.
The Monday afternoon confrontation stemmed from name calling between
one Caucasian student and two Asian students. The students were
suspended for one day.
On Thursday, several Asian students confronted the white student.
One of the Asian students wanted to know if the white student had
made racist comments about him and his friends. A teacher approached
and dispersed the group. The two groups reassembled in the school’s
parking lot. Words were exchanged. The white student reports that
one of the Asian boys pushed his sister, who had stepped between
to prevent a fight. The two punched each other. Soon, as many as
20 students were involved in several fights.
The high school campus police officer called for backup. As the
students continued to fight, police officers used pepper spray on
them. Between 80 and 100 students gathered to watch, including two
photographers from the student newspaper.
The school gave five-day suspensions to 10 students for participating
in the fight. The police believe there is cause for criminal indictment.
They have asked the school newspaper to give them the eight photographs
that were taken during the fight. The newspaper’s editorial board
has, so far, refused.
It’s decision time. With whom do you agree?
A member of the school community, who believes the student
journalists have forgotten their roles as citizens. He believes
that this is not a question of protecting the confidentiality
of source. The photographs were taken in a public place so
anyone who was there could have taken the pictures, and the
student journalists made no promises to keep anyone’s identity
A criminal prosecutor, who sees this as a question of civic
responsibility. An institution, certainly not a student newspaper,
should not impede authorities in their rightful investigation
of crimes. Although there are witnesses, that information is
not as valuable as actual pictures of the fight. Violence in
schools today requires we do this.
The student editor, who upheld the newspaper editorial board’s
decision not to turn over the negatives. They voted to withhold
the pictures to protect the paper’s integrity and ability to
gather news. They do not want to be viewed as an investigative
arm of the police, something they believe might dissuade other
sources of information from working with them in the future.
And in this case, it’s hard to believe the information they
have is necessary to the investigation. After all, there are
close to 100 other witnesses to whom investigators could first
look to obtain the information they require. The First Amendment
protects the press’ ability to gather the news, as well as to
You know the Supreme Court cases involving student rights. Which
apply in this situation? What would you do? Do you publish the photographs?
Do you give the negatives to the police?
Whose Photo Is It? - Background
The Real Situation
The photographs were taken on Jan. 26, 1995. The scene described
comes from local newspaper coverage and the Hawkeye, the
student newspaper at Mountlake Terrace High School in Washington.
In addition to disciplining the students who were involved in the
fight, the school brought conciliation specialists from the U.S.
Justice Department to meet with the students involved, school administrators
and the Mountlake chief of police. As far as school officials were
concerned, they were handling the situation effectively.
At the end of March, prosecutors in Snohomish County in Washington,
demanded that editor Stacey Burns turn over photographs of the fight
to the police. Burns and the two photographers, Larry Harnden and
Scott Bush, were subpoenaed by a Snohomish County Superior Court
judge to attend a special inquiry.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which represented
Burns, defended the right of student journalists to retain material
gathered in the course of reporting, unless the information is essential
to a police investigation and there are no other avenues of obtaining
the material. There were numerous eyewitnesses to the fight, so
the photographs were not essential. A Superior Court judge ruled
that Burns had to comply with a subpoena to turn over the photographs.
The prosecutor later dropped the case.
Letters to the editor of community and major newspapers
were divided in their opinion. Some said Burns was no Joan of Arc.
“Kids should be taught to respect police and all authority.” Another
citizen wrote, “Ms. Burns is a kid — repeat kid — running a kiddee
business in a kid’s high school.” Others gave support of the editorial
An editorial in The Herald, a community newspaper, praised
police chief John Turner for being “sensitive to the civil liberties
of young people, with an against-the-grain opposition to youth curfews.…
We have two fine individuals who find themselves facing off in that
all-American arena of the ‘90s — the courtroom.”
Some believed that, in addition to the First Amendment, the Federal
First Amendment Privacy Protection Act of 1980 applied in this situation.
The Act states, “… it shall be unlawful for a government officer
or employee, in connection with the investigation or prosecution
of a criminal offense, to search for or seize any work product materials
possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate
to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form
of public communication. …”
According to an April 1995 editorial in the Seattle Times,
“a recent study of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
found that more than half of 900 news organizations surveyed had
received subpoenas for photos, notes and testimony.
“Although the press manages to quash the subpoenas about two-thirds
of the time, the increase in subpoenas interferes with news gathering
and soaks up newsroom resources. The ability of newspapers and broadcasters
to resist demands from law enforcement is crucial for an independent
“Burns is doing what any good journalist would do: protecting her
staff and sources from government monitors and ensuring that her
community is served by the free flow of information.”