Washington — Congress and the administration are intervening to protect newsrooms from surprise police searchers. They are incidentally dropping a few hints to the US Supreme Court jsut before it reconvenes Oct. 6.
Without dissent, the House has sent to the Senate a bill restricting police seizure of "documentary material" of newsmen, filmmakers, and free-lance writers if they are not suspected of a crime. Senate and House conferees are expected to approve the compromise bill shortly, it is believed, which also is acceptable to the administration.
It is the delayed response of Congress to a police search of the files of the Stanford (Calif.) Daily for photographs of an anti-Vietnam War campus demonstration. It also goes beyond the incident. The Supreme Court is getting-increased numbers of cases involving freedom of the press, the right to gather news, and the confidentiality of government documents.
The court gave former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger the right to keep secret from a reporters' group the diary of his official telephone calls unless the government itself demands and gets the diary back.
At the same time the court issued a sweeping decision in Snepp v. US that gave intelligence agencies control over what their former employees write about them. It ordered ex-CIA agent Frank W. Snepp, to give back the money he had made on a nonfiction book about the Central intelligence Agency in Vietnam because he had not received agency approval for it in advance.
Judicial position of pres and of First Amendment press freedom seems in process of major re-analysis, judging by the cases coming to the Supreme Court. Congress itself is taking a hand in the matter.
"In the Stanford Daily case," Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin told the House, "the Supreme Court swept away 200 years of jurisprudence greatly limiting searches directed against innocent third parties." This was Zurcher v. Stanford Daily in 1978, in which the court's ruling was subject to further guidance by Congress to fill a legal void. President Carter approves the new wording.Differences in House and Senate versions of the same proposal must be reconciled.
The original newspaper search was made by the Palo Alto (Calif.) Police Department, but the present bill provides rules for federal officials only, with the expectation that state and local police authorities will be guided by it. It does not limit protection to journalists alone, on the ground that the news media should not be made a constitutional special elite.
The new guidelines for searches will also safeguard the privacy between attorney and client, its sponsors say, between patient and doctor, and other similar relationships.
Under the pending bill no search warrant can be issued with five exceptiosn: There is "provable cause" of wrongdoing; there is reason to fear death or serius bodily injury; there is destruction or concealment of the material; a previous subpoena has failed to produce the material; or the material contains contraband or the fruits or insttuments of a crime.