Search Warrant ( .PDF )
Once again, we are reminded of the importance to a democracy of preserving a free and independent news media.
That reminder came in the form of a search warrant delivered to the Journal-World last month by an investigator for the Kansas University police department. The warrant was intended to give the KU police access to the Journal-World's computer servers so they could examine the J-W's online subscriber files.
The warrant, which was sought by the KU Office of Public Safety, reviewed by the Douglas County District Attorney's office and issued by Douglas County District Judge Stephen Six, was aimed at identifying a single poster on the J-W's Web site. The poster had made comments about an article reporting on the death of a KU student in an Oliver Hall dorm room. Rather than request a subpoena for that specific piece of information, officers chose a sledgehammer approach that would have given them access not just to a single piece of information but anything else they found interesting on the newspaper's computer servers. And they would get immediate access to that information without the newspaper having an opportunity to examine or object to the request.
This use of a search warrant is a gross attack on First Amendment provisions that protect newspaper files and sources - and an attempt to unnecessarily invade Journal-World files. Investigators could have pursued a number of other e-mail avenues and first-person sources to obtain the information they sought but chose instead to use Journal-World files to engage in a fishing expedition. Their action infringes on the rights of the J-W, but, more importantly, it infringes on the public's right to freedom of speech and a free media that can provide information without government interference.
The Journal-World strives to be a good citizen and has a record of cooperating with law enforcement when it is in the public's interest. Within the past year, the Journal-World has been subpoenaed twice to provide the identity of online posters and subsequently provided the information in both cases.
The search warrant, however, is a far more open-ended investigative tool. If the newspaper is forced to open its servers and files to police through warrants, it becomes an investigative arm for government law enforcement. That's hardly the proper role for a free and independent news media.
Even District Attorney Charles Branson told the Journal-World later that he wasn't sure why his office didn't encourage KU investigators to seek a subpoena rather than a search warrant. Nonetheless he appears willing to dive into what he referred to as the "uncharted ground" of applying federal laws to online issues and argue that the use of a search warrant is justified.
Media experts disagree and believe the laws on the matter are clear. The Internet may have changed many aspects of our lives, but it hasn't given the federal government the right to subject the nation's news media to searches that essentially turn them into agents of government law enforcement.
The KU search warrant was a blatant attack on freedom of speech and should raise an alarm not only with the nation's news media but with the public at large.