Climate of Press Mistrust Spurs Public-Records Demand

MANHATTAN (CN) – Pointing to red flags of government intrusion on press-freedom rights, two groups brought a federal complaint to compel the release of public records.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation brought the lawsuit on Nov. 29 alongside the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, represented by attorneys with the latter group.

About six weeks earlier, the two groups filed identical requests under the Freedom of Information Act with four government agencies: the Department of Justice, the National Security Agency, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Among other things, according to the complaint, these requests sought “documents concerning the limitations imposed upon any of the government’s investigative authorities by the First Amendment and documents concerning any limitations on investigative activities to obtain or use records or information of or about members of the news media.”

Though federal law gave the agencies 20 days to respond, Knight and the foundation say that their requests produced just two documents from the NSA, both of which were already publicly available. Having received nothing else, the groups want a federal judge to compel records disclosure.

They say the climate of government surveillance underscores the need for such transparency.

“Recent reports of government investigations into journalists, political dissenters, and political protesters call into question the adequacy of existing limitations on the government’s surveillance authority to protect First Amendment rights,” the complaint states. “For example, earlier this year the DOJ demanded that the web host for a website called DisruptJ20.org, which organized protests on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, turn over data encompassing 1.3 million IP addresses and other information associated with the thousands of individuals who had visited the website. The DOJ narrowed its demand only after public condemnation on First Amendment grounds.”

Knight and the foundation also note that the election of President Donald Trump this year has augured in an era of unabashed government scrutiny of the media.

On Aug. 4, 2017, for example, “the DOJ announced that it had tripled the number of active investigations into leaks of government information.”

In connection with those investigations, the DOJ also revealed that it would be “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas,” the complaint states.

Knight and the foundation also quote testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions before Congress on Nov. 14, 2017, that the DOJ has 27 “open leak investigations — nine times as many investigations as in the previous year.”

“Given these recent developments,” the complaint continues, “it is urgent that the government disclose records clarifying the precise limitations placed on its surveillance powers to protect the freedoms of speech, association, and the press. The public has a right to know those limitations and to know whether the government is in fact complying with them.”

One specific set of documents sought by the groups is the discussion in the current version of the FBI Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide of “any limitations on any investigative activities, including the use of law enforcement and national security investigative authorities, to target, acquire, retain, disseminate, or use records or information of or about members of the news media.”

Knight Foundation attorney Alex Abdo signed the complaint. Representatives from the federal agencies have not responded to requests for comment.

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