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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently joined a group of media organizations to request that a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capital withdraw its subpoena for a photojournalist’s records.
“The events of January 6th were an attack on democracy, and it would be incongruous were a Congressional investigation into 1/6 to itself endanger the independence of the press,” wrote the organizations in a Dec. 22 letter drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
In late November, the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol subpoenaed the cell phone provider of freelance photojournalist Amy Harris, seeking data on calls and texts she made during a three-month period around the time of the insurrection.
On Dec. 15, Harris sued the committee over its demand for her records, arguing that her communications are protected by the First Amendment, common law and the District of Columbia’s shield law.
In their letter sent to the committee’s chair and vice chair, the media groups stressed the dangers of forcing Verizon Wireless to disclose Harris’s call records, warning that they could reveal her confidential sources.
“That information is particularly sensitive,” they wrote, “as the inability of a journalist to maintain the confidentiality of sources means sources will be less likely to come forward, which itself limits the free flow of information to the public.”
The letter notes that the U.S. Department of Justice recently barred its own officials from seizing the same kind of information the committee seeks in the wake of several recent disclosures that the Justice Department under the Trump Administration authorized the seizure of reporters’ phone and email records as part of leak investigations.
“Constitutional protections for newsgathering reflect the reality, well known to the framers, that the press itself preserves democratic governance by promoting an informed electorate. It cannot do so if sources are concerned that speaking to the press will expose them to the burdens of a government investigation,” according to the letter. “The Select Committee’s subpoena threatens to compromise that independence, and we strongly urge you to withdraw it.”
NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. The coalition regularly writes and joins advocacy letters in cases involving First Amendment freedoms and the public’s right to know about government. All coalition briefs, advocacy letters and statements can be found here.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Leadership Circle donors for 2021 include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, and the Robertson Foundation. Major Supporters include Boston University, WBUR-Boston, the Academy of New England Journalists, Genie Gannett and Linda Pizzuti Henry.