- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2010


Law-enforcement agencies in San Mateo County, Calif., seem to have forgotten that the First Amendment exists to protect all Americans from overbearing government, not just accredited journalists. On April 23, the sheriff’s department busted down a blogger’s door and raided his home over a cell phone that an Apple employee carelessly dropped at a Redwood City bar. Apparently, the maxim “finders keepers, losers weepers” has no bearing in law.

Jason Chen, editor of the Gizmodo website, obtained the missing device, which happened to be a prototype of the next-generation iPhone. His intention was not industrial espionage; he simply wanted to share the upcoming phone’s new features with his audience of loyal fans obsessed with reading about the latest gadgets. Mr. Chen published a detailed description of his find, concluding that the overall feel of the product was “freaking amazing.” A company could hardly ask for better advertising.

You wouldn’t know it from Apple’s response. Instead of blaming its own internal security lapse, the firm used its clout to prompt a Putinesque show of force. Officers armed with a search warrant grabbed Mr. Chen’s computers, servers and digital camera equipment - in other words, all the tools of his trade. It’s not even clear whether Mr. Chen, who returned the phone to Apple after writing his story, violated any law.

Contrast that with an actual espionage case. New York Times reporter James Risen is on the hot seat for including sensitive information about CIA operations in his book about the secretive spy agency. Mr. Risen’s home was not raided. Instead, he received a request to testify before a grand jury on May 4, and his lawyers are politely discussing whether he has a right under the law to protect the confidentiality of his sources.

If a cloak-and-dagger case involving life-and-death issues of national security can be handled without resort to thuggery, so can an episode about a missing cell phone. Obviously, if someone not named Steve Jobs (Apple’s founder) were to call 911 from a pay phone and report that he had dropped his cell phone in a tavern, the SWAT team wouldn’t be deployed.

San Mateo County should immediately return Mr. Chen’s property, drop its involvement in the matter and turn its attention to the 500 murders, rapes, assaults and robberies that, on average, go unsolved each year in that jurisdiction. Government needs to get out of the business of intimidating Americans exercising their rights to free speech.

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