Justice Department backs off on secret seizure of reporters’ records
The Justice Department has revised its guidelines on when it can probe the phone and email records of journalists as part of an effort to stem government leaks. This comes after the controversial secret seizure of Associated Press and Fox News records.
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"Under this revised policy, the department would not seek search warrants … if the sole purpose is the investigation of a person other than the member of the news media," the report stated. The Attorney General himself would have to approve all such search warrants.Skip to next paragraph
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Reaction to the new guidelines was generally positive.
Erin Madigan White, the AP's senior media relations manager, said the news agency "is gratified that the Department of Justice took our concerns seriously.”
“The description of the new guidelines released today indicates they will result in meaningful, additional protection for journalists,” she said. “We'll obviously be reviewing them more closely when the actual language of the guidelines is released, but we are heartened by this step."
David Anderson, an expert in media law at the University of Texas at Austin, said the changes would make a "substantial difference" because US attorneys who want news media records would have to "jump through some hoops" to get them, according to a Reuters report.
"It appears that they are recognizing that the very broad subpoena of the AP's phone records was too aggressive," Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, told the Associated Press. "They also recognized that they are not going to prosecute a reporter for basic newsgathering activities unless they have reason to believe the reporter is involved in the alleged breaking of the law. That has not been all that clear in the past."
But, she added: "The devil will be in the details. They left themselves a little bit of wiggle room."
In May, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 51 news organizations wrote to the Department of Justice, vigorously protesting the subpoena of AP phone records.
"The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct, including matters touching on national security which lie at the heart of this case," the letter argued.
In response to Friday’s Justice Department action, The Reporters Committee commended Holder “for taking seriously the concerns of the press.” (The organization was formed in 1970 to provide legal help to journalists seeking to protect their rights under the First Amendment and Freedom of Information Act.)
But in a statement Friday, The Reporters Committee also said, “We continue to believe that an impartial judge should be involved when there is a demand for a reporter’s records because so many important rights hinge on the ability to test the government’s need for records before they are seized.”