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SPJ objects to Justice Department secretly confiscating journalist’s records


Rebecca Baker, SPJ National President, 203-640-3904, rbaker@spj.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Director of Communications and Marketing, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists strongly opposes the Department of Justice seizing years' worth of a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records.

“Going behind a journalist’s back, in secret, without the reporter or media outlet given the opportunity to fight the intrusion in court, shows the lack of protection for journalists from the federal government,” said Rebecca Baker, SPJ National President. “These actions create a chilling effect between sources and journalists that prevents anyone concerned with the actions of their government from raising concerns.”

The New York Times reported that the seizure was disclosed in a letter to the Times reporter, Ali Watkins, who had been in a three-year relationship with former Senate Intelligence Committee aide James A. Wolfe. The seizure suggested that prosecutors under the Trump administration will continue the aggressive tactics employed under President Barack Obama, the Times reported.

“The fact that the government is secretly spying on law-abiding journalists by gathering their phone records is reminiscent of the East German Stasi and should raise alarm bells for anyone who values the freedoms we stand for in America,” said David Cuillier, former SPJ president and SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member. “Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. The Obama administration did the same thing, also to ferret out and discourage government employee leakers.”

The situation has prompted some to again stress the need for federal shield laws. Most states offer journalists some protection to do their jobs. But the federal government has never passed similar protections at the national level.

Kathryn Foxhall of SPJ's D.C. Pro Chapter and member of SPJ's FOI Committee, said this type of action by the Justice Department can filter into all areas of government.

"This trend toward seizing reporters’ records will intimidate so many potential source people," Foxhall said. "Its damage to the public’s right to understand its government is incalculable. It’s critical to remember that the thus induced silence will include staff members in many parts of government, extending well beyond the national security arena and into subject matters that have no claim of being confidential.”

Cuillier said this most recent story is scarier than the typical shield law case, because at least in those cases, the government approaches the news organization up front to demand records.

“If Americans value their liberties, their freedom to talk in private with whomever they want, and the ability for journalists to gather information independently in the public interest, then they should speak up and demand their members of Congress put a stop to this and adopt a strong federal shield law,” Cuillier said.

Read more about ways SPJ is working to protect journalists and their sources.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.


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