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Publishing company sues over newsroom search

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Dec 17, 2002    

Publishing company sues over newsroom search

  • A legal publisher sued Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, claiming violations of a federal search law and interference with publishing caused by a newsroom search earlier this year.

The Metropolitan News Company, publisher of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a legal newspaper in Los Angeles, and company owner Roger M. Grace sued Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley Dec. 16 over a May 2 search of the company’s downtown offices.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, stems from county investigators’ quest for documents they said related to a probe of possible government corruption in South Gate, Calif.

On May 2, investigators for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office served a search warrant on the company. The warrant called for seizure of records showing the identity of a customer that had placed legal advertisements with the publication, according to the complaint.

The warrant authorized the search of company offices, including areas where news materials were stored. During the search, 11 armed investigators closed the company’s offices for three hours and ordered employees — including reporters — out of the building, according to the complaint.

About two weeks earlier, the company had offered to turn over the materials if the investigators provided the name of the firm that placed the advertisement, said Grace, who also is editor and publisher of the newspaper.

If the newspaper had been subpoenaed for the business-related materials, Grace said he would have complied.

“In other words, there was really no reason for the search,” Grace said.

The documents sought by the district attorney were turned over by Metropolitan News-Enterprise Co-Publisher Jo-Ann W. Grace after telephone conversations with district attorney’s office and once the investigators provided the name of the firm that placed the ad.

In the complaint, Grace and the company allege that the search of the newspaper office violated the Privacy Protection Act, which bars execution of search warrants on news organizations unless there is probable cause to believe that the person who has the materials in question committed a crime, or unless seizure is necessary to prevent death or injury.

According to the complaint, the search limited the content of the next day’s Metropolitan News-Enterprise and delayed completion of that day’s edition of the Los Angeles Bulletin, an afternoon daily published by the company.

In a May 2 statement Cooley defended the search: “This office is very sensitive to and respectful of First Amendment issues as it relates to news rooms. There was nothing about this search that would indicate otherwise.”

The complaint seeks a declaration that the search violated the Privacy Protection Act and seeks damages for trespass, interference with business operations, and violation of civil rights.

The company also alleges that Cooley libeled Grace and the company in a May 2 news release and in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, which accused Metropolitan News of refusing to comply with the warrant.

“Your suggestion that the newspaper shield law might extend to cover business invoices for legal notices will have to be worked out in the courts,” the letter also stated in reply to an earlier editorial.

And working it out in court is just what Grace hopes to do with this lawsuit.

“The important thing is to judicially establish is that the DA didn’t have the right to do what he did,” Grace said. “If [Cooley] won’t proclaim that the search was a mistake, then we feel we need to get a judge to declare that.”

(Metropolitan News Company v. Cooley; Media counsel: Lisa Grace-Kellogg and Roger M. Grace, Los Angeles) JL

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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