Louisville television station WDRB went to court Tuesday to fight a search warrant served by the Louisville Metro Police Department. Judge McKay Chauvin ruled that the television station was not required to turn over raw video footage of an interview with Dmitri Harris, a suspect in a police shooting. If they want the footage, LMPD officials will have to try to get a subpoena.
I spoke with Greg Leslie, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Journalists are shielded from search warrants by the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 that requires a subpoena to get a journalist’s work product — audio, video, notes or sources.
“If you’re gathering information about public officials, often, or about public controversies, you don’t want those same officials or their representatives to be able to search everything you have and see what kind of reporting you’ve done and who your sources were. Whereas, if you try to gather the same information through a subpoena, the organization or the journalist has the opportunity to go to court and say, let’s limit this, let’s narrow it to things where there isn’t a first amendment concern at stake.”
There are exceptions that allow a judge to require that a news organization honor a search warrant.
“If there are concerns that the information will be destroyed before they can seek it through a subpoena, there’s an exception for that, if there is direct reason to believe that the information they’re seeking is about the commission of a crime, they can similarly have an exception. There’s also exceptions for things like child pornography, and in some instances, for things involving national security threats.”
A circuit court judge ruled on Tuesday that none of those exceptions applied to LMPD’s search warrant and WDRB didn’t have to honor it. That was the same judge who signed off on the original warrant.
“It comes up through the ignorance of the police departments. They’re just not aware that there are these obligations under the Privacy Protection Act protecting journalists’ work product and judges often don’t know about it too … along the way nobody seems to have known that there is a federal law that has been around since the early ’80s actually limiting their ability to get [search warrants] when it involves the news media.”