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|Secret Service Confiscates Journalist's Notes, Then Apologizes
A student journalist at American University says she learned an important lesson about being a reporter after having her notes confiscated by a Secret Service officer patrolling near the vice president's residence in Washington, D.C.
Graduate student Dena Gudaitis was on a class assignment in Northwest Washington in August when the situation escalated and an officer demanded she turn over her notes. Even though the Secret Service later apologized for the incident, Gudaitis said she wishes she had put up a fight.
After all, she said the notes comprised a total of three sentences about joggers, traffic on Massachusetts Avenue and the trees making noise.
"They were very intimidating," Gudaitis said of officers. "They were very professional, but they made me feel that I needed to question my own actions. I wasn't doing anything wrong, but their intimidation was so intense."
The assignment started off simple enough. Gudaitis and her classmates were sent out to capture the mood of a particular location in the nation's capital. Gudaitis headed to the British Embassy, which is adjacent to the Naval Observatory where the vice president's home is located.
When Gudaitis arrived on the scene, she got permission from the guards at the embassy to take notes, but the Secret Service officer at the vice president's residence balked at her request. Gudaitis waited for him to get in touch with a supervisor, but when he didn't respond after several minutes, she began writing things down.
The officer asked for her notes and the supervisor on the premises concurred with his decision, Gudaitis said.
"I don't think I was posing a threat by being a student and being someone who's observing what was going on around me," she said. "I understand that is their job (to monitor the residence), but I would also hope they understand that I'm trying to do something too."
Upon returning to the university and sharing her experience with professors, School of Communication Dean Larry Kirkman sent a letter to the Secret Service demanding the return of the notes as well as an apology for Gudaitis.
Both of those requests were granted on Aug. 14 when a Secret Service officer came to campus.
The Secret Service didn't return calls from CNSNews.com regarding the incident, but the university reported that the agency did acknowledge it erred in confiscating the notes.
The incident at the vice president's house wasn't the only matter this semester involving an American University student journalist and federal officers.
Rick Steele, a photographer for the campus newspaper, was taking pictures of officers guarding the White House when he was approached and asked to delete them from his digital camera, said Mackenzie Ryan, editor of The Eagle .
Even though Steele was ordered to delete the photos, he was still able to complete his assignment about increased security at the White House by simply walking to the other side of the building. A shot of an officer ran in the paper, Ryan said.
Steele declined to comment about the incident. He said he wasn't sure if officers from the Secret Service or the U.S. Park Police asked him to delete the pictures.
Ryan said journalists at the university would persevere despite the recent encounters with law enforcement. She said The Eagle was looking into the possibility of getting press credentials for its staff members as a way to avoid future problems.
"As a student journalist, sometimes you're not taken as seriously as if you were working for a professional newspaper that has more name recognition," she said.