Shield Law Should Protect All Journalists
By Joel P. Engardio
The morning after the tragic death of Jeff Adachi, I received a call from a well-known local journalist. They wanted to know if I had any sources who might have the police report describing the scene where San Francisco’s celebrated public defender had died the night before.
The journalist asked me to reach out to police contacts I regularly talk to in my leadership role with the community group Stop Crime SF and as a guest columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
Rumors were swirling about how Adachi died and who was with him. The journalist said they wanted to get the information right. Seeing the police report, which is not a public document, was crucial to their reporting.
I decided not to help. While Adachi’s sudden death was newsworthy, I felt the salacious details were irrelevant. They weren’t a vital matter of public policy and safety. In due time a coroner’s report would be publicly released. We would eventually learn the facts of an accidental mixed-drug overdose that stopped an already damaged heart. And news outlets could publish cautionary tales of drug use in Baby Boomer age men.
Most journalists, however, weren’t willing to wait. They aggressively pursued Adachi’s police report and obtained it.
News stories that reveal something, especially on a controversial topic, are often the result of an insider sharing — or leaking — non-public information to a reporter. The New York Times wins Pulitzer Prizes because a source literally hands them information.
While the Adachi scoop is far from Pulitzer-worthy material, the same principle applies. That’s why it is so disturbing that freelance journalist Bryan Carmody faced a search warrant and raid of his home after he obtained and distributed the Adachi file.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott eventually apologized for the raid, after defending it. The police union called for Scott’s resignation, saying he had known Carmody was a journalist and pursued the search warrant and raid anyway.
Any police chief would want to stop a leak that put the department in a bad light. But the quest to find the original source of the leak should have been limited to an internal police investigation and not by looking through a journalist’s notes via a judge’s sealed search warrant.
If police felt Carmody was key to the investigation, then there should have been a subpoena so the matter could be handled in open court.
Lots of journalists obtained copies of the Adachi report. But unlike freelancer Carmody, they worked for reputable news outlets and large media companies. Where were their sealed warrants? Why weren’t they subject to a raid and confiscation of their computers?
I’ve won a number of journalism awards for a variety of news outlets as a freelancer. Would I have been targeted if I had received a copy of the Adachi file?
Carmody could be considered a less sympathetic character because he is self-employed and known to purvey sensational news. But the California shield law protects all journalists from search warrants that seek unnamed sources and unpublished material.
Given the well-defined law, it’s perplexing that two San Francisco Superior Court judges approved Carmody’s search warrant. We won’t know why until the warrants are unsealed.
It’s shocking that most elected officials in San Francisco either vocally supported the raid or stayed silent until public pressure forced them to denounce it. Supervisor Aaron Peskin provided the voice of sanity by immediately condemning the search warrants while declaring, “A free press is a fundamental pillar of our democracy.”
How could our politicians have such a lapse in judgment and understanding of the First Amendment? Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the Trump era that even progressive San Francisco has succumbed to the hypnotic drumbeat of “fake news” and demonization of the media.
Adachi was revered for how successfully he defended people accused of crimes. It’s understandable people were upset that details of his death were leaked. But it’s always dangerous to let anger compromise our ability to allow the local press to report the truth, however inconvenient. Especially in San Francisco, where we hold ourselves to a much higher standard of protecting freedom.
Eroding the First Amendment, even slightly or righteously, only makes life more difficult for journalists when we need them to reveal the truths that really matter.