SPJ Legal Defense Fund to assist freelance journalist after FBI raid
Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins, SPJ National President, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Tsuyuki, SPJ Communications Specialist, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is deeply concerned about the FBI raid of freelance journalist Tim Burke’s home newsroom in May 2023, and is offering to cover $10,000 in legal fees.
The Legal Defense Fund Committee voted to provide at least a $5,000 grant toward assisting with Burke’s legal fees. The committee also requested the SPJ Board of Directors commit to an additional $5,000, which it did during a recent board meeting.
On May 8, 2023 the FBI went to Burke’s home in Tampa, Florida, with a warrant directed to the journalist, and seized several computers, hard drives, cellphones and other equipment that he used for freelance work. The Tampa Bay Times reported that the raid was connected to Burke acquiring and reporting on outtakes of a Tucker Carlson interview with Kanye West on Fox News.
While the government returned a small number of items not connected with Mr. Burke’s journalistic activities and therefore not covered by the search warrant, as of Nov. 9, two cellphones, seven computers and three storage devices were still being withheld from Burke. Burke also filed a motion in July seeking to unseal the affidavit that accompanied the FBI’s search warrant. According to the search warrant for his home, officers were authorized to seize all of Burke’s electronics and physical records of alleged violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the wiretap statute, but no further details about the reason for the warrant have been disclosed by the Justice Department.
News reports and pleadings filed in the case indicate that the case arises from Burke’s access to what he has described as publicly accessible and internet addressable websites, including sites that hosted live video streams which he downloaded and reported on. Burke contends that accessing publicly available websites -- even those that the owner did not know were publicly accessible, does not constitute “computer hacking” and does not violate the CFAA or justify federal agents raiding his newsroom. Burke also contends that, because he committed no crime, the government was required under the Privacy Protection Act, to use a subpoena to obtain information about his activities, and not a search warrant.
“It is always critical for SPJ to stand up for the First Amendment rights of all journalists, whether newsroom staff employees, student journalists or freelancers. Any government agency’s attempt to infringe upon those First Amendment rights must be fought to ensure there is no chilling effect for other journalists,” said SPJ National President Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins in a press release accompanying a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. “We stand behind Mr. Burke and his request for the immediate return of his devices from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Burke says that the grant will help pay his legal team, which comprises of local counsel Michael Maddox and outside counsel Mark Rasch. Rasch is founder of the Department of Justice Cybercrime Unit and worked with Congress to draft the original Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
“It's been more than eight months since they seized my newsroom. And I have yet to even get to see a judge to argue on why I should be able to get my reporting materials back,” said Burke during a phone call on Jan. 18. “SPJ’s support is helping me to pay my legal team and filing these appeals which are now at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to try to get our day in court.”
“SPJ has helped us not only to defend journalism and a journalist, but to defend journalism as a whole,” Rasch said.
The SPJ Legal Defense Fund is a unique account that can be tapped for providing journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. The committee works throughout the year raising funds for LDF. More information about the fund can be found here.
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 SPJ Foundation.