Dec. 1, 2017 – Is it okay for the government to get information about your cell phone use without a warrant? Should the police be able to find out – without getting a warrant – who you talked to? Where you went?
That’s the question the Supreme Court grappled with on Nov. 29, when justices heard the case of Carpenter v. United States.
The NewsGuild-CWA joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and 19 other organizations to issue a resounding “no,” through a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the court in August.
The case at issue involved Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted of robbery after FBI agents gained access – without a warrant – to more than four months’ worth of his cell phone records, which they used to track his movements and who he talked to. Carpenter challenged his conviction.
His lawyer, ACLU attorney Nathan Wessler, argued that tracking Carpenter that way violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
But the case has special significance for reporters, he said. “It can really imperil the ability of journalists to do confidential reporting,” he told the Washington Post.
“In the age of Donald Trump, with his constant attacks on journalists and their sources, this poses a serious threat,” said NewsGuild-CWA President Bernie Lunzer.
The brief filed by the RCFP, the Guild and others noted that cell phone records jeopardize sources and expose journalistic methods. They “can reveal the stories a journalist is working on before they are published, where a journalist went to gather information for those stories, and the identity of a journalist’s sources… Exposure of sources and journalistic methods can put sources’ jobs and lives at risk, compromise the integrity of the newsgathering process, and have a chilling effect on reporting,” the brief said.
“We need the freedom to report and that means we can’t be subject to constant surveillance,” Lunzer told Union City, the newsletter of the Metro Washington Council AFL-CIO. “We believe a reporter’s rights and sources should be protected at all times,” Washington-Baltimore News Guild Executive Director Cet Parks said.
Carpenter’s advocates are not suggesting cell phone information should be off-limits. Rather, they are “making the modest claim that police should show probable cause and get a warrant first,” Wessler told the Post’s Margaret Sullivan. “It’s a reasonable protection.”