The Homeland Security Department has ordered a review of training for its Coast Guard criminal investigators as part of a broad legal settlement with The Washington Times over the improper seizure of a reporter’s interview notes involving sources.
The Times and its former reporter, Audrey Hudson, took Homeland Security to federal court after an August 2013 incident in which agents entered Ms. Hudson’s home with a warrant to collect information about guns that her husband reportedly possessed in the house. The agents used their access to seize reporting materials from Ms. Hudson, including documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and notes from interviews exposing problems in the agency’s Federal Air Marshal Service.
As part of the settlement, reached with the help of a federal magistrate over the summer, the government is taking the rare step of reimbursing some of the newspaper’s and Ms. Hudson’s legal bills accrued during the fight to protest the seizure last year.
“While the settlement payments cover just a fraction of the legal bills we accrued, the fight was, in the end, about protecting a journalist’s right to keep her sources confidential and to engage in the First Amendment protected activity of reporting without unwarranted government intrusion,” said Larry Beasley, the president and chief executive officer of The Times.
Ms. Hudson, whose series on problems inside the Federal Air Marshal Service won awards before she departed The Times in 2010, said she hoped the settlement would prevent similar confrontations.
“The importance of this case was that we just were not going to let it stand, the idea that federal officers at will could confiscate a reporter’s notes without any sort of subpoena or search warrant seeking the notes or even directed at the reporter,” Ms. Hudson said.
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She started at The Times in 1999 and was the paper’s Homeland Security Department reporter when she wrote the articles.
The agents apparently did not appreciate the First Amendment protection of the press and Fourth Amendment right to privacy, Ms. Hudson said.
“Clearly, these employees were not trained, and they just thought that they could take any reporter’s notes that they wanted to,” Ms. Hudson said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not return calls seeking comment Monday. As part of the settlement, the agency said it returned to Ms. Hudson any documents or other notes that were taken during the raid.
The department also promised to require the director of the Coast Guard Investigative Service to “initiate an internal review and analysis of current training and policy related to the Privacy Protection Act.”
John Solomon, editor and vice president for content and business development for The Times, said the newspaper was “pleased DHS recognized a review was warranted of its training practices and that greater sensitivity among its investigators is needed to the constitutional safeguards that should have been triggered in this episode.”
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Allen Farber, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and one of The Times’ counsels in the case, said he was pleased with the resolution. “I hope the government will implement training and follow procedures to prevent such intrusions in the future,” he said.
Maryland State Police and a federal agent with Homeland Security’s Coast Guard Investigative Service raided Ms. Hudson’s home on Aug. 6, 2013, at 4:30 a.m. The officers had a warrant to search for registered firearms and a potato launcher supposedly belonging to Ms. Hudson’s husband.
Mark Grannis, Ms. Hudson’s attorney with the law firm Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, said it was significant that the settlement did not involve only money, but also an assurance from the government that training programs would be improved and would “hopefully raise awareness of privacy protections among the press.”
“Ms. Hudson stood up for the rights of the press and did not let the federal government seize her notes and violate the Privacy Protection Act,” he said.
Fred Brown, a member of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, said government actions like this can cause a chilling effect.
“If you’re a reporter, who wants to subject himself or herself to that kind of disruption?” he said. “For this kind of thing to happen, for the government to enter a house, seize documents that have to do with the reporting of a legitimate story, that’s inexcusable bullying.”
The government, Mr. Brown said, needs to follow a simple axiom when dealing with either the press or general public: “Follow whatever laws that apply.”
Mr. Grannis said he hopes the settlement serves as a reminder for federal agents going forward.
“At a time when more and more people are engaged in newsgathering, people that execute state and federal search warrants really need to be aware of the special privacy considerations that arise whenever a reporter’s notes are involved,” he said.
• Kellan Howell contributed to this report.
• Phillip Swarts can be reached at email@example.com.
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