Department of Veterans Affairs Returns WAMU Reporter's Recording Equipment

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009

Officials at WAMU radio and the Department of Veterans Affairs settled a dispute last night over the confiscation of a reporter's recording equipment during a public forum this week at the VA hospital in the District.

Jim Asendio, news director at the station, said the sound card from the reporter's digital recorder was due to be turned over to him late last night, with no conditions. VA officials initially said they would return the card only if the reporter, David Schultz, signed a consent form that should have been signed before he conducted any interviews.

The station contended that confiscating the device violated Schultz's First Amendment right to gather news. The department claimed that Schultz did not identify himself or follow proper procedures for interviewing VA patients while at the event.

In a statement released last night, VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said the department "regrets the incident" and "appreciates the press's interest in covering the VA" but also must "make every effort to protect the privacy of our patients."

Schultz said he attended the meeting Tuesday night in the hospital's auditorium after learning about the event from a VA press release. The VA's Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans organized the meeting to hear comments about the medical care received by minority veterans. After Army veteran Tommie Canady told the committee that he had received poor treatment at Washington's VA hospital, Schultz invited him into the hallway for a recorded interview.

Moments later, according to Schultz, hospital public affairs officer Gloria Hairston approached them, telling Schultz that he could not interview Canady until they both signed consent forms. She summoned hospital security guards and demanded that Schultz hand over all his equipment. After consulting with Asendio by phone, Schultz gave Hairston the recorder's flash card and left the hospital.

Roberts said yesterday that Schultz did not properly identify himself or obtain consent forms before speaking with Canady.

"We have procedures and policies in place so that our patients can make informed decisions about what information they feel comfortable releasing or discussing with the public. That is why, before we permit one-on-one interviews to be filmed or videotaped on our premises, we request written consent."

A reporter with American Urban Radio and a photographer with Vaughn Enterprises also attended the forum, signed consent forms and were able to interview patients, Roberts said.

Anyone entering the hospital was required to show personal identification and sign in with their name and phone number, Schultz said. He said he did not have a formal press badge or business cards because he is a part-time employee of the public radio station, which is owned and operated by American University. But he said the WAMU logo on his bag, his headphones and his recording equipment should have made his intent clear.

In a letter sent to the VA on Friday afternoon, WAMU General Manager Caryn G. Mathes called the VA's actions "clearly unconstitutional," stating that "Mr. Schultz's newsgathering activities and the product of his work not only are protected by the First Amendment, but he was attending a public meeting at which the VA had encouraged public discussion on the treatment it gives to minority veterans."

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, agreed with Mathes. "The seizure by the government of newsgathering equipment is the kind of thing we sometimes see in dictatorships, not in the United States," she wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. "For a government official to take a reporter's equipment away while he is conducting an interview amounts to the kind of prior restraint that has been repeatedly found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court."

The VA had said Schultz could get the flash card back if he signed the consent forms. But Asendio, on the advice of American University lawyers, refused to do so and did not authorize Schultz to sign. Asendio wanted to focus on the story Schultz was reporting: medical treatment for minority veterans. Schultz has filed three reports on the incident and Canady's experiences with the VA.

"The story really is about [Canady] and about why the VA doesn't want him to talk and why the VA is trying to suppress his story," Schultz said.

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