A funny thing happened at the U.S. Supreme Court late last month: The justices unanimously took away from the press a time-honored tool, and hardly a whimper was heard. Especially here at The Post. One might have expected otherwise from some of the arguments made before the court in Wilson v. Layne, a case in which a couple sued federal marshals and Montgomery County sheriff's deputies who raided their Rockville home with a reporter and a photographer from The Post in tow.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, news organizations including The Post argued for the ride-along, a practice through which publicity-seeking law enforcement agencies permit action-loving journalists to tag along, even on raids of private homes. Imagine being rousted from your bed half-naked and finding yourself being photographed -- and every detail of the indignity recorded in a reporter's notebook. That's what happened to Charles and Geraldine Wilson, who had the misfortune of being the parents of a man wanted by the law for violation of his probation on assorted felonies. For the press, however, the issue was ostensibly the public's right to know.
"By observing and recording firsthand the activities of government officials charged with enforcing the law, including the execution of search warrants, the news media afford the public a unique window through which to observe the conduct of those officials, the operation of the statutes and ordinances they enforce and the social conditions they confront." That's what the friend-of-the-court brief said. The news organizations warned of dire consequences to the republic: eliminating or restricting the ride-along would bring to an end "a class of news reporting that has contributed meaningfully to public scrutiny of official conduct." They continued: "Firsthand observations by the public, through the news media, of law enforcement searches and seizures -- ranging from police raids on `crack houses' to inspections by fire marshals of overcrowded sweat shops to health department examinations of roach-infested restaurant kitchens -- provide the public with a rare opportunity to monitor and evaluate the conduct of these officials. Such reporting informs the public, in a way no other kind of journalism realistically can, about the assertedly unlawful conduct at which enforcement efforts are directed, the difficulties and dangers facing law enforcement officers, the legal restrictions that confine their discretion, and the social ills they seek to redress."
All that may be well and good -- but not convincing when it comes to a person's home. Writing for the court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist recalled a time-honored principle. "In 1604," he wrote, "an English court made the now-famous observation that `the house of every one is to him his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence, as for his repose.' "
The court's rebuff of media organizations' arguments was a reminder that the First Amendment does not grant reporters and photographers an absolute right to go anywhere at any time in pursuit of a story. There is such a thing as the Fourth Amendment, which, Rehnquist noted, has at its core "the right of residential privacy."
Rehnquist wrote: "Surely the possibility of good public relations for the police is simply not enough, standing alone, to justify the ride-along intrusion into a private home. And even the need for accurate reporting on police issues in general bears no direct relation to the constitutional justification for the police intrusion into a home in order to execute a felony warrant."
In the years since Post staffers joined in the raid of the Wilsons' home, editors have made it clear that crossing such thresholds is forbidden. So the Wilson ruling last month formalized what common sense and good manners have dictated. The ride-along in other settings, however, continues.