Media Law Handbook

Journalist's Privilege


11. Conclusions
9. What else does a reporter need to know?

10. Can the police search a newsroom with a search warrant?

The federal Privacy Protection Act protects journalists against most searches of newsrooms by law enforcement officials.  The law generally prohibits federal, state and local law officials from searching for or seizing journalists’ “work product materials” and documentary materials.  Work product materials are those created in anticipation of communication to the public and include impressions, conclusions, opinions or theories of the journalist.  Documentary materials are obtained in the course of investigating a story and do not include a reporter’s opinions.

There are four exceptions to the rule against newsroom searches:

  •  Search warrants are allowed if someone in the newsroom is suspected of a crime related to the work product or documentary materials sought and if the crime is not related to the handling of the material in question. If the purported criminal act is the communication of the information to be seized, the seizure is inappropriate unless the information deals with national defense, classified information, child pornography, sexual exploitation of children or the sale of children.  
  •  Searches are allowed for work product or documentary materials if seizure is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury.
  • Searches are allowed if there is reason to believe that subpoenas for documentary materials would result in the destruction, alteration or concealment of those materials.
  •  Searches are allowed if the newsroom has ignored orders to produce documentary materials or if there is reason to believe that delay would be against the interests of justice.

Every newsroom should have an immediately accessible file memorandum on how to handle a surprise search warrant.

11. Conclusions
9. What else does a reporter need to know?

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