A county prosecutor's seizure of videotapes from a television station newsroom here has become so entangled in charges of media overzealousness and political ladder-climbing that some observers question its value as a test case to refine a Supreme Court ruling allowing police to search newsrooms for evidence.
The tapes, filmed during a riot at the Idaho State Penitentiary, were seized July 26 by police in the KBCI-TV newsroom. The court-authorized search created a storm of protest from news organizations and media groups in the nation.
County prosecutor Jim C. Harris and other officials, including Gov. John Evans, argued that KBCI reporter Bob Loy and his cameraman had informally waived their First Amendment rights by going inside the prison at the request of the inmates and with the permission of the state corrections department.
Some Idaho journalists appear to agree. Boise radio reporter Fran Martin, in a letter to the Idaho Statesman, complained about a "sidebar tragedy" to the riot -- "the way reporters handled themselves in trying to cover one of the top stories in Idaho this year."
Martin said she saw Loy and a Statesman reporter, Gary Strauss, "groveling and begging to be named" by prisoners to enter the prison yard and relay the inmates' demands to prison officials and the public. She said the reporters' roles as news gatherers became muddied when they joined a "citizens committee" that night. The inmates had demanded reporters on that committee as a condition for releasing their hostages.
The Lewiston Morning Tribune, in northern Idaho, accused Strauss and Loy of becoming "willing bullhorns for rioters' demands." That the Statesman and KBCI allowed the incident to happen "is as outrageous an act as [prosecutor] Harris' subsequent theft of the tapes," the Tribune said in an editiorial.
As the squabble over ethics and law developed through the week after the seizure, one local reporter said it appeared "the riot scene went from the penitentiary to the press."
Loy jumped into the fray, as well, accusing Harris of using his office as Ada County prosecutor as a springboard to the Idaho attorney general's job.
One investigator, upset in turn that the station wouldn't turn over the tapes voluntarily, accused Loy of having a "vested interest" in preventing prosecution of rioting inmates because of his wife's job as a public defender.
And prosecutor Harris accused the Statesman of acting out an "obvious vendetta" against him through a weeklong series of front page articles about the television station search.
KBCI has filed suit against Harris, and this also has triggered controversy over the purity of the case to test the First Amendment issue -- freedom of the press -- involved.
"No case is a perfect test case," said New York lawyer Floyd Abrams. "Every case has side issues which lead people to counsel that one should wait for another day.
"In this case, I think there was plainly raised the issue of the propriety and constitutionality of the conduct of the prosecutor in appearing at the office of the broadcaster with a search warrant and effecting a search without giving them a chance to secure judicial review."
A staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C., said, "Any issue you're involved in has all kinds of secondary details. People can swing ethical questions at each other all day -- it makes a great debate, but I don't know that they'll affect the case. dI am sure that the reporter had no alternative but to do what he did."