The mass tracking of the public’s telephone calls by the National Security Agency has a “corrosive effect” on the ability of the news media to report on crucial issues and “frightens sources into silence,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 13 news organizations argued in a brief filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco (Northern District of California).
The friend-of-the-court brief was filed in support of a challenge by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the NSA’s phone data collection program. EFF and 22 member and political advocacy organizations argue that the NSA practice violates the First Amendment right of association, as well as the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, and the USA PATRIOT Act.
“We felt it was crucial to file an amicus brief specifically outlining the tangible harm to newsgathering that the NSA practice has caused. Reporter after reporter has said that even longtime sources are shutting down for fear that their phone contacts could be caught up in a wide NSA phone sweep,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “The relationships and cooperation we built earlier this year with government officials to temper leaks investigations and subpoenas for journalists’ sources threatens to become moot if this widespread and indiscriminate surveillance of press and public phone records continues.”
From Watergate to stories about harsh CIA interrogation techniques, confidential sources have formed the basis of many large news stories, the brief argued: “Confidential relationships between source and journalist are critical for effective reporting and an informed public, and communications between the two regularly require the use of telephones. Government monitoring via mass call tracking limits journalists’ ability to gather information in the public interest.”
The Reporters Committee made similar arguments in the ACLU’s challenge to the phone records collection program in the Southern District of New York in September.
Joining the Reporters Committee brief were: Advance Publications Inc.; American Society of News Editors; Belo Corp.; The E.W. Scripps Company; First Amendment Coalition; Los Angeles Times; The McClatchy Company; National Press Photographers Association; The Newspaper Guild-CWA; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; Online News Association; Society of Professional Journalists; and The Washington Post.
About the Reporters Committee
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.
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