SPJ Speaks out against Subpoena of Reporter Phone Records

SPJ leaders call Minnesota Police Department’s administrative subpoena
of reporter phone records an abuse of public power

INDIANAPOLIS — The St. Paul Police Department’s administrative subpoena of KMSP-TV reporter Tom Lyden’s phone records and the phone records of a Ramsey County sheriff’s department employee was an abuse of power and an affront to First Amendment rights, Society of Professional Journalists leaders said Wednesday.

“Tom Lyden was doing his job and a service to the people of St. Paul and the state of Minnesota,” SPJ National President Clint Brewer said. “This was clearly a public record, and the St. Paul Police Department’s actions are nothing less than an attack on the First Amendment and the notion of open government. They should withdraw their subpoena, return Mr. Lyden’s phone records and apologize.”

According to published reports, including the Associated Press, Lyden went to the police department with intentions to research the criminal record of a woman who was sitting in a car with a man who allegedly shot an undercover police officer last June. Under Minnesota’s public records law, Lyden should have been entitled to view a copy of the seven-year-old traffic arrest of the woman. However, he was denied by St. Paul police spokesman Tom Walsh. Lyden later obtained the document from a county official who acknowledged it was public information. He reported his story without naming the woman, who was considered a witness in the police shooting last summer. After the story aired, the police department issued the administrative subpoena, citing concerns over data privacy.

“In obtaining my phone records they basically opened up my reporter’s notebook,” Lyden told another KMSP-TV reporter. “They basically looked at my notes. They have looked at sources. They have looked at people I have tried to protect.”

Consistent with the Society’s position that journalists should not be intimidated by public officials or serve as defacto agents for law enforcement, Society leaders support Lyden and KMSP management.

“What’s crazy about this whole thing is that the police department wants to know which public employee actually followed the law by providing a public document that everyone is entitled to,” said David Cuillier, chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. “This could frighten government employees everywhere, telling them that if they don’t go along with secretive, illegal agency practices they will be hunted down through any means and perhaps punished. Police should be upholding the law and good governance, not scheming to undermine it.”

In the last year, SPJ has raised more than $30,000 to support a campaign for the passage of a federal shield law. The work to ensure passage of such a law is ongoing. Thirty-two states, including Minnesota, have various statutes that protect journalists from being forced to testify or disclose sources and information.

“The Minnesota Shield Law recognizes the public’s interest in allowing journalists to do their jobs,” said Joan Gilbertson, president of SPJ’s Minnesota Pro chapter and a senior producer at WCC0-TV. “What the St. Paul Police department has done is circumvent reporters’ ability to protect their sources.”

“The state of Minnesota, and other states, have a shield law for a good reason; the U.S. constitution says reporters have a constitutional watchdog role. Snooping into a reporter’s phone records raises serious concerns when the shield law is properly followed but that doesn’t seem to be the situation in Tom Lyden’s case,” added Gordon Govier, SPJ’s Region 6 Director, covering chapters in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. “I will be closely watching this case, along with the Minnesota Pro Chapter of SPJ.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For further information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org .