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Media wins riot photo rights

September 27, 2000

The March 27-28, 1999, East Lansing riot left fires burning long after the smoke from that fateful evening had cleared - the battle for possession of unpublished riot photos is finally over more than a year and a half after it started.

In an attempt to single out participants in the riot, Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III issued subpoenas to all state media outlets for copies of unpublished photographs and film taken during the disturbance.

An eight-month long court battle ensued between 11 Michigan media outlets that were under subpoena, including The State News.

The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media Tuesday. None of the organizations involved will have to turn over their footage.

The State News spent $9,246.57 to fight the subpoenas, said Berl Schwartz, general manager of the newspaper.

Kevin Ragan, WILX news director, said he feels vindicated and is pleased with the results.

“We were good citizens, we immediately handed over the broadcast material, but knew the outtakes were protected,” Ragan said. “Today the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously agreed with us.”

Steve Crosby, executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, shares Ragan’s enthusiasm.

“I’m very happy and very relieved,” Crosby said. “I hope this decision clears up the role of the press in the minds of anyone who is seeking to take our work and use it for their purposes.”

Arguments presented in court revolved around a section of the Investigative Subpoena Act, which regulates what information from the media law enforcement agencies can access.

According to the act, law enforcement agencies are able to subpoena a news organization only to obtain information that has been disseminated to the public by media broadcast or print publication or if the reporter or other person is the subject of the inquiry.

According to the state Supreme Court, these circumstances were not met.

“We were exceedingly pleased,” said John Ronayne, an attorney representing The State News. “We think the Court of Appeals made the right decision and the state Supreme Court was correct in affirming that decision.”

Dunnings was not so excited about the ruling.

“I thought it was clear what the law was, but there was no court decision to tell me my decision was incorrect,” Dunnings said. “This statute was certainly not a paragon of clarity and it needed interpretation and now that that’s been done and the issues have been resolved we’ll know how to proceed in the future.”


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