One year ago this week, San Francisco police conducted a raid on journalist Bryan Carmody, a widely condemned attack on press freedom and a plain violation of California’s shield law protections.
State and federal law protects journalists from having to disclose their sources or any unpublished information collected during newsgathering to the government — and prohibits judges from issuing warrants for the search and seizure of such information.
In the interceding 12 months, many questions remain unanswered, including whether and how the city will change its policies and procedures to prevent future threats to a free press.
Today, the First Amendment Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter announce new joint initiatives aimed at promoting and protecting press freedoms.
The organizations call on San Francisco Mayor London Breed to commit to a meeting to discuss how the city will adhere to the state’s shield law for journalists and ensure ongoing press freedom. Additionally, the groups are reaching out to California judicial leaders to engage in a dialogue about press freedoms and media accommodations. Further, FAC and SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee will hold free Shield Law training for journalists.
On May 10, 2019, police took a sledgehammer and pickaxe to the front gate of Carmody’s home, later revealed to be part of extensive police surveillance of the journalist who obtained a police report about the death of the city’s elected public defender, Jeff Adachi. Police were after Carmody’s confidential source. In all, the SFPD obtained five search warrants targeting Carmody’s cell phone records, home and office, where they seized troves of newsgathering materials.
After an extensive legal fight, the five San Francisco Superior Court judges who authorized the warrants agreed to quash them. California’s shield law provisions protect journalists from being held in contempt for refusing to disclose their sources’ identities and other unpublished or unaired information obtained while newsgathering (California Constitution, Article I, § 2(b); California Evidence Code § 1070(a)). California Penal Code section 1524(g) provides that “no warrant shall issue” for any item protected by the shield law.
FAC, SPJ NorCal and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press fought in court to unseal the SFPD’s applications for warrants that should not have been executed on a journalist. The records showed that police failed to disclose to the judges that Carmody had a current SFPD-issued press credential. However, in two applications, officers disclosed details about Carmody’s work in the news business, which should have prevented judges from authorizing the warrants.
“This raid should never have happened, and was so clearly unlawful under California’s shield law protections that it raises many questions about how the city handled this affair — questions that have never been answered,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “We are optimistic that Mayor Breed will meet with our groups to help chart a positive path forward.”
“Reactions to the raid showed a lack of knowledge of the shield law and exactly whom it protects,” says SPJ NorCal President Ben Trefny. “Continuing education is needed to ensure journalism can continue unfettered in our region.”
“Journalists often rely on confidential sources in order to bring facts to light that some may wish to remain hidden,” said SPJ Nor Cal Freedom of Information Committee co-chair Lauren Smiley. “If our assurances of anonymity are violated by unlawful searches, our ability to do investigative journalism is at risk. We hope that the mayor and court leaders will work with us to make sure the laws to protect the Fourth Estate are upheld.”
- Register today for a June 2 journalist shield law workshop. It is free and open to the public.
- Read the January letter to Mayor London Breed requesting a meeting with free-press advocates, a meeting that has been indefinitely delayed.
- Find court records, past statements and more details about the Bryan Carmody ordeal on FAC’s in-depth page.
The First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing free speech, government transparency and public participation in civic affairs. Bookmark our free Legal Hotline, resources on accessing public records and meetings, and our Subpoena Defense Initiative, which pairs journalists in need with pro bono legal counsel to enforce shield law protections.
ABOUT SPJ NorCal
The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. The Northern California chapter’s Freedom of Information Committee advocates for upholding open government protocols and First Amendment protections in our region, extending from San Luis Obispo to the state’s northern border.
David Snyder, FAC Executive Director
Ben Trefny, SPJ NorCal President
SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-Chairs Christine Peek and Lauren Smiley