It’s Your Decision: Whose Photo Is It?

During sixth 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 secret.

2.____ 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 report it.

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 for Discussion

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.

The Reaction
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 board’s decision.

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 press.

“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.”