Bryan Carmody says several San Francisco police officers tried to break into his Outer Richmond home with a sledgehammer, detained him in handcuffs for hours, and seized computers, notes and more from his residence and office. Barring some suspicion that Carmody committed an offense other than journalism, the police might as well have taken their sledgehammer to the United States Constitution.
The officers appear to be trying to determine who leaked a sensitive police report on Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s death to Carmody, a freelancer who sold the story to local television stations. Carmody told The Chronicle that officers had asked him for his source two weeks earlier and that he had declined to cooperate, which is precisely the sort of refusal that shield laws in California and other states are designed to facilitate. Journalists must be able to keep their sources confidential to conduct the unfettered reporting on government that the First Amendment protects.
The excessive police tactics Carmody described — in an account that authorities have not contradicted — put President Trump’s anti-press “enemy of the people” rhetoric into action right here in the putative headquarters of the resistance. Police should return the freelancer’s property and seek it in court if they believe they have a legitimate case.
California’s shield law, which voters enshrined in the state Constitution in 1980, protects journalists from being held in contempt for refusing a subpoena to provide their sources, notes or any other unpublished material obtained in the course of news-gathering. State law also prohibits search warrants from being issued for material protected by the shield law.
That suggests the warrants police served on Carmody’s home and office last week should not have existed. Although the warrants were approved by judges on grounds that have not been made public, District Attorney George Gascón said police did not run the search requests by his office before going to court.
They could have used the legal advice. As Society of Professional Journalists President J. Alex Tarquinio rightly noted of the raid, “One expects this level of disregard for the value of press freedom in an autocratic country without the First Amendment. In this country, journalists have the right to gather and report on information.”
Adachi, 59, who died in February of what an autopsy attributed to cocaine, alcohol and heart disease, was an outspoken public defender, the only elected one in the state, and a prominent antagonist of the police. So when details of his last hours that seemed calculated to posthumously smear him emerged thanks to an apparent police leak, the department took a beating from Adachi’s allies on the Board of Supervisors and beyond.
A police statement on the raid alluded to that outcry, saying the “citizens and leaders of the city … demanded a complete and thorough investigation into this leak.” Mayor London Breed likewise defended the police, saying, “Something was done that should not have been done, and we are definitely trying to get to the bottom of it.”
The police have the right and presumably the investigative skills to root out the malicious gossips within their ranks, but they have no right to storm the homes and offices of journalists when they run out of leads. Whether the journalism at hand is the finest example of the craft — or whether the reporter is paid by the story or by a powerful institution that employs him — is irrelevant. Such an assault on a journalist should be regarded as an intolerable assault on journalism itself.