A popular news outlet is battling an attempt by the FBI to access information on its readers. The Bureau claims it is seeking specific details to aid in an investigation. However, the publisher claims this request violates the First Amendment and is pushing back against the agency.
USA Today Bucks the FBI
In April, the FBI served Gannett, a newspaper publishing company, with a subpoena to ascertain who read a particular USA Today story about a February shooting in Fort Lauderdale, FL, which left two agents dead and three wounded. Politico reported:
“The subpoena, served on Gannett in April, seeks information about who accessed the news article online during a 35-minute window starting just after 8 p.m. on the day of the shootings. The demand — signed by a senior FBI agent in Maryland — does not appear to ask for the names of those who read the story, if the news outlet has such information. Instead, the subpoena seeks internet addresses and mobile phone information that could lead to the identities of the readers.”
Attorneys representing Gannett argued that the Bureau’s request violated the First Amendment and noted that the agency seemed to ignore the Justice Department’s policy as it relates to getting information from the media. “A government demand for records that would identify specific individuals who read specific expressive materials, like the Subpoena at issue here, invades the First Amendment rights of both publisher and reader, and must be quashed accordingly,” according to lawyers Charles Tobin and Maxwell Mishkin.
Gannett’s attorneys referred to a situation in 1998 in which prosecutors from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s office attempted to obtain Monica Lewinsky’s purchase records from a bookstore to get information on gifts she bought for then-President Bill Clinton. In this case, a judge ruled that the demand violated the First Amendment rights of Lewinsky and the bookstore.
This story comes amid a series of criticisms against the Bureau coming from journalists and even President Joe Biden. The increased scrutiny was the result of its probes designed to obtain telephone records for reporters working with The New York Times, CNN, and other outlets. A similar situation arose under the Obama administration when it investigated other journalists for publishing leaked information that was harmful to the president.
On June 5, USA Today reported that the FBI withdrew its subpoena, which was issued to obtain information to identify a child sexual exploitation suspect. The agency abandoned its attempt after identifying the suspect through other means.
“The government’s own guidelines require the FBI to pursue alternative sources before subpoenaing a newspaper,” Tobin said. “This is a reminder of why that restraint makes perfect sense.”
Still, for those who value the Constitution, the Bureau’s heavy-handed approach to obtaining information from a media outlet is an example of the type of conduct that could have a chilling impact on press freedoms. The Biden administration seems to understand the potential consequences of this approach and recently announced the Justice Department would no longer covertly obtain journalists’ records. However, stories like these are a reminder that the rights protected by the Constitution must be constantly defended.
Read more from Jeff Charles.