- - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An administration that abuses the freedom of the press can only get away with it if the press allows it. Under a settlement agreement with this newspaper, a chastened Department of Homeland Security must now instruct its employees that the First Amendment prohibits interference with news gathering under the guise of law enforcement.

A dispute arose last year when Maryland State Police officers and a Coast Guard investigator named Miguel Bosch raided the home of Audrey Hudson, who was at that time a reporter for The Washington Times. Homeland Security was her beat, and her work did not always reflect the flattering and uncritical light the government officials thought was their due.

Several of Mrs. Hudson’s articles detailed fumbling and bumbling with the air marshals program, where Mr. Bosch previously worked. During the raid on her home, he specifically asked Mrs. Hudson whether she was the “one and the same Audrey Hudson” who had written all those stories about his former employer.

Mrs. Hudson got her scoops through the careful cultivation of sources within Homeland Security who told a different version from the official version of what was going on inside the agency. A good reporter never takes a press release or a speech as the last word. The bureaucrats are always eager to identify the whistleblower, to spread fear and to “manage” the news and shut down “bad press.”

The agents had a warrant to enter Mrs. Hudson’s home to look for registered firearms and a “potato gun.” During the raid, Mrs. Hudson’s investigative files were taken, including her handwritten notes concerning the air marshals service. There was no plausible connection between those clearly labeled reporters’ notes and the subject of the warrant. The notes had nothing to do with either potatoes or guns.

The constitutional violation was obvious, but mounting a legal challenge against the federal government is never easy, and it’s always expensive. Sovereign immunity thwarts most attempts to hold federal agents to account. Yet disdaining the challenge always exacts the higher price, because it enables the government to think it can go through the papers of a reporter on the flimsiest of legal pretexts.

Protecting the identity of sources is fundamental to what a newspaper does, and keeping the government’s nose out of a reporter’s notes is fundamental. If sources won’t talk for fear of retaliation from their superiors, the public won’t know how their government operates. When Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson sits down in the woodshed with his agents for a heart-to-heart about the meaning of press freedom, he would do well to tell them what Thomas Jefferson said about it. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” If the government can abuse a reporter and a newspaper and get by with it, it can far more easily abuse a private citizen.

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