President Carter asked Congress yesterday to enact a package of bills designed to improve individual privacy, including restrictions on police searches and seizures of news organization's files.
Carter's proposals included legislation that would effectively reverse the Supreme Curt's 5-to-3 ruling last May in the Stanford Daily case, which involved a police search of the offices of the Stanford University student newspaper.
The president also proposed legislation that would establish privacy protections for medical records and records collected from federally funded research. In addition he called for passage of a pending bill that would limit the use of lie detectors in private employment.
He said he will soon send Congress a measure that would provide privacy protections for insurance, consumer credit and banking records and will take administration actions designed to improve the privacy afforded to federal records.
In the Stanford Daily decision, the court ruled that police may search places - including newsrooms - even if no one who lives or works in the place is suspected of criminal activity.
Asserting that the ruling "poses dangers to the effective functioning of our fee press," the president proposed legislation that would prohibit in most cases a search or seizure of a news organization's "work product," such as a reporter's notes or files or film. It would also require police to obtain a subpoena, rather than just a search warrant, to make searches for specific documentary evidence other than "work product" materials.
The main exception to these restrictions and prohibitions would be cases in which the object of the search was suspected of a crime.
A spokeman for the American Civil Liberties Union said the organization was "pleased with the scope of the agenda" proposed by Carter although it would differ with him on some of the specific recommendations. For example, the spokesman said, the president proposed giving medical records essentially the same privacy protections that now apply to certain types of financial records. The ACLU, he said, would seek even tighter restrictions on access to and use of medical records.
In addition to the legislation he proposed, the president sent Congress a letter endorsing most of the recommendations of a commission that was established to review wiretapping and electronic surveillance laws and procedures. However, Carter said in the letter that he opposes the commission's recommendation to allow some federal officials below the rank of assistant attorney general to apply to the courts for wiretap authority.
The president also asked private employers voluntarily to establish privacy protections for their employment and personnel records and urged commercial credit firms and reporting services to adopt protections for their records.
In his message to Congress, Carter said modern problems in protecting individual privacy are a natural outgrowth of the explosion in information-collecting and storage facilities such as computers.
"Our challenge," he said, "is to provide privacy safeguards that respond to these social changes without disrupting the essential flow of information."