Calif. judge says warrant for journalist's photos was illegal

Brian Westley | Reporter's Privilege | Feature | June 22, 2010

A judge has ruled that University of California police illegally obtained photographs from a journalist covering a campus protest.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Northridge on Friday ordered police to return all copies of the photos taken during the December protest at the Berkeley campus, according to the Oakland, Calif.-based First Amendment Project. The judge also ordered university officials to declare under oath what agencies, if any, received copies of the photos.

“Everything we asked for, we got,” said David Greene, the First Amendment Project’s executive director.

Photojournalist David Morse was covering the demonstration for the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center, known as Indybay, when he was arrested by campus police who obtained a search warrant to view his photos.

In requesting the warrant, police never informed a judge that Morse was a journalist, Greene said. A California shield law protects journalists from subpoenas that seek unpublished information gathered while covering the news.

Though Morse repeatedly identified himself as a journalist before he was arrested, the university argued that police had reason to believe Morse was not a journalist because he was carrying an expired press pass.

Morse frequently carries his old press pass as a backup and left his current pass behind as he rushed to get to the scene, Greene said. Regardless, the attorney noted, police ignored Morse when he tried to explain that he was a journalist.

University police Capt. Margo Bennett said Tuesday that she had not yet reviewed the court’s ruling and was unable to discuss its impact.

Police arrested eight people Dec. 11, when dozens of protesters marched on the home of university Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to protest budget cuts and a fee increase. Protesters – some carrying torches – broke lights and windows and overturned planters at the chancellor’s home.

The university obtained Morse’s photos to aid its investigation. In a court motion supporting its actions, the university argued that the public’s interest in prosecuting the protesters outweighed a First Amendment right to preserve the confidentiality of unpublished information.

Meanwhile, in another case that could involve California’s shield law, the owners of the Gizmodo technology blog have asked authorities to return computers and other equipment taken from a blogger who posted pictures of a missing iPhone prototype. Gawker Media argues the state’s shield law should also protect the blogger’s property.