SEVERAL WEEKS after a reporter refused to tell police the identity of a confidential news source, his house was raided by authorities. Armed with a warrant, they used a sledgehammer to break down the front gate of his home. They handcuffed the reporter, searched his house and office, and seized computers, cameras, hard drives, notes and other materials.
This assault on the media did not occur, as one might assume, in some autocratic or Third World country where there are no First Amendment protections, but in San Francisco, a most liberal city in a most liberal state. And as troubling as these events are, what is even more confounding is the refusal by authorities to acknowledge they did anything wrong; instead, they sought to blame the reporter and criminalize legitimate newsgathering.
“We believe the line was crossed,” San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said at an extraordinary news conference this week in which he said freelance journalist Bryan Carmody was a suspect in a crime. Mr. Carmody had obtained and sold to local TV stations a confidential police report related to the death of the city’s elected public defender who had been critical of police. The leak of details surrounding his death was seen as payback to smear the public defender’s reputation; police were embarrassed and pressed to find the source of the leak.
Fine for the police to try to determine whether someone in their department acted wrongly, but Mr. Carmody’s receipt and distribution of a leaked government report is an action that is not only common in the media but protected by the First Amendment. California’s shield law protects reporters from being compelled to reveal their sources. The information in the police report, as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted in an amicus brief filed in an ongoing court case by media organizations (including The Post), was clearly newsworthy and likely subject to disclosure under the state’s public-records law.
Mr. Carmody was not the only reporter disseminating information from the report, and it has been suggested that police went after him because he lacked the resources available to news organizations. Good, then, that his case has been taken up nationally by press advocates, focusing attention on the importance of an independent press and the need to protect the ability of journalists to gather and report news.