Washington Times settles case involving Homeland Security's seizure of reporter's papers

Kimberly Chow | Reporter's Privilege | News | October 2, 2014

The Washington Times has settled a lawsuit it brought with former reporter Audrey Hudson against the Department of Homeland Security, whose Coast Guard Investigative Service improperly seized notes and papers of Hudson’s during a 2013 raid on her home.

In August 2013, a Coast Guard Investigative Service agent and Maryland state police raided the home of Hudson and her husband, acting on a warrant for registered firearms and a potato launcher that Hudson’s husband allegedly owned. While executing that limited warrant, the agent and officers also seized reporting materials belonging to Hudson, who while with the Times had written articles revealing deceptive practices within DHS’s Federal Air Marshal Service. The seized materials included notes from interviews about those stories and documents Hudson had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Hudson has stated that those papers contained the identities of several whistleblowers.

The settlement, which includes promises of additional future training for Coast Guard investigators, is an important victory for press freedom and privacy. Mark Grannis of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, who served as Hudson’s counsel, emphasized that, even if the warrant for guns that allowed the government to raid the home was not pretextual, the seizure of the reporting materials showed “deplorable failure in training” with respect to reporters’ privacy.

“It was definitely important that we did not ignore this and did not let the government’s actions go uncorrected, but it was also really important that we raised awareness of this for the future,” Grannis said. “At a time when more and more people are engaged in newsgathering, the people who execute state and federal search warrants must be aware of the privacy protections that cover reporters’ notes the same way they’re aware of privacy protections covering medical records and other protected documents that may be swept up in unrelated criminal searches.”

As part of the settlement, DHS is performing a review of its Coast Guard investigator training, returning the documents it seized in the raid, and destroying any copies of the documents and notes made from the documents, with the exception of a single copy of notes covered for three years by a judicial protection order.