Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ashamed and Proud

As my moniker and blog title might imply, I attended an institute of higher learning called "JMU." James Madison University, which is located in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It is a wonderful area, beautiful and scenic, and the place where I spent the most fun 6 or 7 years of my life. It's a good school. A really good one. It was when I went, and it still is. And I'm very proud to be an alumnus of the University.

Recently an event occurred at the school which has cast it into the news around the Washington, DC area. It has been an embarrassing story which I've tried to follow through websites, news outlets and fellow alumni from the area, since I now live near Philadelphia.

For many years, going back to the late 80's and early 90's when I attended, there has been a block party in April in a townhouse community called "Forest Hills." It was basically a street with one entrance/exit (as I remember it) filled with town homes. The residents would pick a weekend, and tell everyone "hey. Let's all get kegs on such and such date, and invite our friends. Turn it into a big block party." That's how I remember it happening, and I attended it more than once.

With the growth of social media, and the history of 20+ years of partying to go along with it, the Forest Hills Block Party has grown and grown. This year, the students had the idea of creating Facebook "fan" pages, and the like. It became a party that students from other colleges would want to attend.

To make a long story short, the party got out of hand. Riot police were brought in, and tear gas was used to disperse the crowds. Cars were damaged. Property was damaged. Many arrests were made. A schools reputation was damaged. Here is an example of one YouTube video I found regarding the incident.

Watching this video, I can't help but be anything other than ashamed. YouTube search for Springfest Riots, there are tons more. This was the first that popped up.

But over the last week or two, another story has developed, of which I feel a certain sense of pride. The police and the University have a bit of egg on their face. They are doing a bit of a witch hunt, tracking down YouTube videos and other postings of pictures to try to identify people who may have been involved in the criminal activity. I think it may be excessive, but so be it.

The student run newspaper at JMU is called "The Breeze." They had staff photographers and people assigned to cover the large party, and it obviously turned out to be a larger news story than anyone expected. On Friday, the Commonwealth's Attorney showed up at the offices of the paper with a warrant to seize any and all photos regarding the incident. Refusal to turn the photos over would result in all computers and equipment being confiscated, which would make continuing to produce the paper impossible. They wound up confiscating over 900 photos. But the student editor in chief realized that this was a violation of the federal Privacy Protection Act. She sought legal counsel, consulted her faculty advisers, and contacted an organization that helps give legal advice and protection to student run newspapers. For this, I am proud. This young lady, Katie Thisdell, has the guts and fortitude to stand up for free speech, privacy protection, and overall civil liberties in the face of quite a firestorm. I'm not sure that I would have the courage to do that now. I'm almost positive that I wouldn't have had the balls to do it then.

I've simplified the story. If you would like to read more, here is an article from the Breeze.

Congratulations Katie and the rest of the staff at the Breeze. You made me proud to be a JMU graduate again. Fight the good fight. Good luck.