Editorial - Government trampled on First Amendment in seizing phone records
Editor's note: This week, stories have appeared in major publications about the U.S. Justice Department secretly obtaining two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press (AP). In all, the government seized records for more than 20 separate phone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the action, saying it was part of an investigation into a security leak that disclosed details of an airliner bomb plot, even though the CIA maintains there was never a threat to the American public. The following information was provided by the Associated Press Media Editors. The Echo Press Editorial Board shares APME's view that this kind of action is an outrageous breach of the First Amendment.
The Associated Press Media Editors Association condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the actions of the Justice Department in seizing phone records of The Associated Press.
In condemning this action, APME joins the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and many other journalists across the country.
"In a continuing witch hunt for leaks and whistleblowers, the Obama administration has chosen to trample the First Amendment," said APME President Brad Dennison. "Freely tossing around the word 'transparency,' as this administration is prone to do, does not make it so. This action clearly demonstrates that President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. have absolutely no interest in an open and transparent government."
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the action a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather news, and has requested that all phone records be returned immediately. APME is standing behind this request.
"There is no conceivable explanation for this overly broad request," Dennison said. "So ultimately, the entire news industry must view the administration's actions as blatant intimidation and a not-so-veiled effort to let news organizations know their records also can be seized with impunity."
In addition to supporting its colleagues at the AP, APME is calling for discussion and implementation of a federal shield law. This law would protect journalists from having to reveal their sources and documents, ensuring that journalists and confidential informants would not be silenced by the threat of federal prosecution or subpoena. Under a proposed shield law, the federal government must prove to a judge that the information sought outweighs a journalist's need to maintain confidential information.
"A shield law would keep lazy prosecutors from going after reporters' notes and phone records," said APME First Amendment Chair Teri Hayt, "and compel them to actually conduct investigations that do not step all over the First Amendment."
APME and other journalists have been pushing for a shield law for several years to protect, in part, against exactly the type of outrageous activity the AP is facing.
The Associated Press Media Editors represents thousands of journalists in the United States and Canada. APME works closely with The Associated Press to foster journalism excellence and to support a national network for the training and development of editors who will run multimedia newsrooms in the 21st century. APME is on the front line in setting ethical and journalistic standards for newspapers, and in the battle for freedom of information and the First Amendment.