The Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records has had a “chilling” effect on the news organization according to CEO Gary Pruitt, a First Amendment lawyer who took his case to the National Press Club on Wednesday, complete with a wish list of changes he would like to see.
“The actions of the DOJ against AP are already having an impact beyond the specifics of this case. Some longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking with us,” Mr. Pruitt said.
Justice Department officials informed him May 10 that the federal government had gathered records for multiple phone lines assigned to AP journalists in April and May 2012. The federal agency was likely seeking the source of leaked information for an AP story about a foiled terrorist plot.
The news organization came out swinging: Mr. Pruitt declared the action a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” and “unconstitutional” during multiple broadcast appearances in the aftermath.
“This chilling effect on newsgathering is not just limited to AP. Journalists from other news organizations have personally told me that it has intimidated both official and nonofficial sources from speaking to them as well,” Mr. Pruitt said. “The government may love this. But beware a government that loves too much secrecy.”
He offered five recommendations for the future of newsgathering.
Mr. Pruitt asked that Justice “recognize the right of the press to advance notice and a chance to be heard before its records are taken by the government.” He also recommended judicial oversight under such circumstances to ensure that “proper checks and balances are maintained.”
Third, Mr. Pruitt asked that Justice guidelines be “updated to bring them into the 21st century,” citing current protocols that were created before the Internet era of emails and texting. He also demanded a federal shield law “with teeth” that would protect reporters from government action.
“We want the department to institutionalize formally what Attorney General [Eric H. Holder Jr.] has said publicly: that the Justice Department will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job,” said Mr. Pruitt in his fifth and final demand. “The department should not criminalize — or threaten to criminalize — journalists for doing their jobs, such as by calling them co-conspirators under the Espionage Act, as they did Fox reporter James Rosen. This needs to be part of an established directive, not only limited to the current administration.”
Mr. Pruitt added, “AP has no political dog in this fight. It is not about Democrats or Republicans. Our issue is freedom of the press and the rights instilled in the First Amendment that were created to hold government accountable. This administration, which came to power on a platform of transparency, has been invoking ever more reasons to keep information confidential from the press and the public.”