Senate moves to limit act restricting newsroom searches
WASHINGTON, D.C.–The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would create a new exception to the Privacy Protection Act, a law that protects journalists, broadcasters and authors from government search or sezure of work product and documentary materials.
The proposed exception is part of the “Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1995” and would permit searches relating to alleged child pornography and child exploitation offenses. Since the Privacy Protection Act became effective in January 1981, the law has permitted officials to search for or seize materials when the receipt, possession or communication of them is a crime only if the offense involves national security or classified information.
Law enforcement officials who violate the Privacy Protection Act can be sued for civil damages by the journalist or news organization involved.
At a committee hearing in early June, Senator Orrin Hatch, the bill’s sponsor, said that the Privacy Protection Act needed to be amended to protect government and law enforcement officials from being sued under the act.
“Law enforcement officials have expressed concern regarding the possibility of lawsuits being brought under this statute in child pornography or child sexual exploitation cases,” Hatch said. “Even the mere threat of such lawsuits may have the effect of discouraging some U.S. Attorneys and local officials, particularly in smaller jurisdictions, from pursuing these cases.”
Hatch said the new exception was consistent with judicial precedent holding that child pornography has no First Amendment protection.
No representatives from the news media testified at the hearing and most of the testimony concerned the new definitions of child pornography that the bill would establish.
The bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee and no vote has been scheduled, but Hatch said he would like it passed by the end of this session. (S. 1237)