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Justice Dept. implements tighter restrictions on seizing journalists' records

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the Justice Department to stop seizing records from journalists engaged in lawful newsgathering activities. File photo by Tom Brenner/UPI/Pool
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the Justice Department to stop seizing records from journalists engaged in lawful newsgathering activities. File photo by Tom Brenner/UPI/Pool | License Photo

July 19 (UPI) -- U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday directed the Justice Department not to seize the records of journalists in leak investigations.

In a memo, Garland wrote that the Justice Department "will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of newsgathering activities."

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The rules issued Monday still allow use of compulsory processes to seize records from journalists who are under investigation for violations of criminal law, such as insider trading, or those who used criminal methods such as breaking and entering to gather government information.

Garland noted that "a free and independent press is vital to the functioning of our democracy" but acknowledged the shortcomings of the "balancing test" used to determine when to use the compulsory process to obtain records from reporters and news organizations is appropriate.

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"The United States has, of course, an important national interest in protecting national security information against unauthorized disclosure. But a balancing test may fail to properly weight the important national interest in protecting journalists from compelled disclosure of information revealing their sources, sources they need to apprise the American people of the workings of their government," he wrote.

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Monday's memo comes after Garland last month instructed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to review, evaluate and strengthen existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the legislative branch amid reports the department had seized records during leak investigations under the Trump administration.

Among the attempts, the Trump DOJ sought to obtain 2017 phone records, and in some cases email records, including communications from CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

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Garland added that the Justice Department will continue to review methods to protect journalists from the compulsory process "in a manner that will be enduring," including supporting efforts by Congress to pass laws protecting the news media.

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