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Fairfax Victims’ Card Closer to Reality; SPJ to Continue Monitoring, Discussing

FOI Alert Volume 5 Issue 8 (1999-2000)

The Fairfax County, Va., police department has received its first quantity of "Victim and Witness Advisory" cards in English and Spanish and plans to begin distributing them to crime victims and witnesses in May.

Warren Carmichael, the department’s public information officer, said cards eventually will be printed in Korean, Vietnamese and Farsi. Carmichael said the Fairfax County department continues to receive inquiries from other departments about the cards.

The Fairfax cards first were brought to the public’s attention in late December 1999, when The Washington Post reported that the department would begin issuing "victim and witness advisory cards" stating that people involved in crimes had a right not to speak with the media. In addition, the cards would ask people to contact police before speaking to reporters.

SPJ’s Virginia "Project Sunshine" Chair, Dick Hammerstrom of the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, wrote a strongly-worded newspaper column in early January denouncing the card’s language and suggesting an alternative. In response, the Fairfax department made changes in the card’s wording.

Also in January, SPJ National President Kyle Elyse Niederpruem issued a news release that stated the changes did not go far enough and that SPJ would organize a meeting with the department to discuss the issue.

After several weeks of planning and organization, the meeting took place March 15, on the eve of the Capitol Hill visit, at the offices of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Participants included Fairfax County representatives, Project Sunshine chairs Hammerstrom (Virginia) and Bob Becker (D.C.), victim rights advocates, local media and other national journalism organizations.

The two-hour discussion was frank but civil, with SPJ emphasizing that it plans to stay aware of, and involved in, this issue. SPJ also expressed its regret that the department had made no effort to contact Hammerstrom or other interested journalists as it contemplated changes to the original card’s wording.

In addition, Bob Becker announced that the Washington D.C. Pro Chapter would issue its own cards for reporters to use when contacting crime victims. Those cards, which already had been printed, state that the journalist does "not intend to add to the difficulties you are now facing" and stresses the media’s responsibility to report on crime.

At meeting’s end, county representatives said they would not change the wording of the current card but would be willing to discuss changes once the time came for a second printing. They also said the cards would not be distributed by uniformed officers at crime or trauma scenes, but by select groups of detectives or victim services personnel who have gone through an orientation in the policies surrounding the card.

Meanwhile, all participants agreed to continue talking about how media, victims’ organizations and police could discuss issues of mutual concern before another department unilaterally decides to take action affecting the relationship between the media and crime victims or witnesses.

SPJ has encouraged journalists in the Washington D.C. and northern Virginia area to keep reporting on the Fairfax story and to insure that the department follows its own policies regarding the advisory card.

In addition, SPJ is pursuing a national forum on this subject. Many of the participants have indicated they would be willing to participate in such an event.

In addition, a video crew from PBS "NewsHour" also attended and will feature coverage from the Fairfax event in a future news program. PBS producer Anne Davenport said the feature could air in May, once footage is obtained of a Fairfax County officer orientation session.


A New Challenge to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act

The federal law placing personal information in drivers’ records off-limits to the media is being challenged from an unusual quarter.

University of Oklahoma professor Bill Loving, now on sabbatical at the Riverside Press-Enterprise in California, has filed suit against the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. Loving, who is representing himself in the case, made his initial arguments before a federal magistrate in Los Angeles on Monday, April 10. He is now awaiting judgment and has prepared a request for summary judgment in federal court in Riverside.

Loving is challenging the DPPA on First Amendment grounds, namely that it restricts the right to receive and distribute information without adequate justification. He also argues the act creates a preferred right in "commercial speakers," namely the commercial interests that retain access to drivers’ personal information.

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