Stand up for whistleblowers: Reporters’ records are not up for grabs

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: To protect freedom of the press, the Department of Justice must be held accountable for its actions.

Illustration of an office with a malignant force watching
Jericho Tang/Staff

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Starting in the tail end of Donald Trump’s presidency and continuing into Joe Biden’s term, the Department of Justice “waged a secret legal battle to obtain the email logs of four New York Times reporters.” The DOJ was after one piece of information: the identity of the anonymous sources that had leaked valuable information to the press. Top executives at the Times were placed under a gag order, barred from speaking about the legal effort until this summer. Fortunately, Google — the platform the Times uses for emails — refused to pass over the reporters’ logs.

Anonymous sources and reporters build their relationship upon a foundation of trust. The DOJ’s actions could cause this trust to erode — through no fault of the journalists working tirelessly to bring the truth to light. The consequence could be that anonymous sources choose to stay silent, fearing that their identity could be leaked through the public. Not only does this harm the quality of the news, but it upsets the very foundation of our democracy. 

The actions of the DOJ also set a disturbing precedent for local newsrooms that likely don’t have resources for litigation. If local or national governments demanded email logs or phone records from a small-scale paper, it might have no choice but to oblige. 

Biden condemned the actions of the DOJ under the Trump administration and promised that under his administration, the department would not attempt to seize the records of journalists. This is an important step in protecting democracy. However, Biden’s promises are not completely reassuring — according to the Times, the legal effort to obtain email records continued into Biden’s term.

Attorney General Merrick Garland might have finally given Biden’s words legal backing. On Monday, he issued rules that disallow the department from seeking journalists’ records unless the reporter is the subject of an investigation outside their work or is suspected of working within a foreign terrorist group. The DOJ can no longer legally pursue records simply to determine the identity of a whistleblower.

The DOJ’s actions flagrantly disregard the First Amendment and the ideals upon which this country was founded, and it is troubling to see this as a larger global trend.

Recently, the phones of 40 journalists and activists abroad were tapped and surveilled using Israeli spy software. And while this infringement was discovered, it is troubling to consider heinous breaches of privacy currently flying under the radar.

Although Biden decreed that these attacks on free press will not continue under his administration, news outlets from the local to national level should feel compelled to speak out. We must stay vigilant and fight for a reality in which government officials let journalists deliver the news, unbridled by bias or meddling.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2021 opinion editor, Sarah Siegel.