Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday expanded protections for journalists, setting new standards that federal prosecutors must meet before seeking subpoenas or search warrants covering media professionals.
Prosecutors must consult with the department’s Policy and Statutory Enforcement Unit before taking steps that include issuing a subpoena to a member of the news media, using a subpoena or court order to obtain records concerning a member of the media, or questioning, arresting or charging a member of the media for actions arising out of “newsgathering activities.”
A significant change praised by media representatives was to drop the word “ordinary” from the phrase “newsgathering activities.”
“These revised guidelines strike an appropriate balance between law enforcement’s need to protect the American people, and the news media’s role in ensuring the free flow of information,” Holder said.
Prosecutors, for instance, are now being directed to consult with higher-ups before they decide questions like whether someone is a member of the media and whether the actions were part of newsgathering activities.
Holder first ordered a review of the department’s media guidelines in 2013. He then announced initial revisions to those guidelines last February. The latest revisions arose following comments from federal prosecutors and other interested parties, including news media representatives.
“We are pleased that the new guidelines protect ‘newsgathering activities’ without qualification whenever the government seeks information related to a journalist’s work reporting and disseminating the news,” declared Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The Reporters Committee helped coordinate a News Media Dialogue Group of news industry leaders, who met with Justice Department officials to express concerns about subpoenas and offer suggestions for improving the process to protect newsgathering and reporter-source relationships.
“The new rules demonstrate a renewed commitment to freedom of the press that will protect the free flow of information to the American public,” said Caroline Little, president and CEO of the National Association of America.