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RCFP urges Congress to withdraw subpoena for photojournalist’s records

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
A House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is seeking the phone records of Amy Harris.
Photo of U.S. Capitol Building

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 55 media organizations are urging a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to withdraw its subpoena for a photojournalist’s telephone toll records.

In late November, the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol subpoenaed the cell phone provider of freelance photojournalist Amy Harris, seeking data on calls and texts she made during a three-month period around the time of the insurrection. On Dec. 15, Harris sued the committee over its demand for her records, arguing that her communications are protected by the First Amendment, common law and the District of Columbia’s shield law.

In a letter sent to the committee’s chair and vice chair on Dec. 22, the media coalition stresses the dangers of forcing Verizon Wireless to disclose Harris’s call records, warning that they could reveal her confidential sources. “That information is particularly sensitive,” the letter states, “as the inability of a journalist to maintain the confidentiality of sources means sources will be less likely to come forward, which itself limits the free flow of information to the public.”

The letter notes that the U.S. Department of Justice recently barred DOJ officials from seizing the same kind of information the committee seeks in the wake of several recent disclosures that the Justice Department under the Trump administration authorized the seizure of reporters’ phone and email records as part of leak investigations.

“Constitutional protections for newsgathering reflect the reality, well known to the framers, that the press itself preserves democratic governance by promoting an informed electorate. It cannot do so if sources are concerned that speaking to the press will expose them to the burdens of a government investigation,” the media coalition’s letter states. “The Select Committee’s subpoena threatens to compromise that independence, and we strongly urge you to withdraw it.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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