Seizing Reporters’ Recorders? No Problem!

Antonin Scalia’s America:

United States marshals who seized tape recorders of reporters for the Hattiesburg American and the Associated Press during a 2004 speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia violated no laws, an investigation determined.

The investigation by the U.S. Marshals Service was conducted after marshals ordered American reporter Antoinette Konz and AP reporter Denise Grones to erase their recordings of Scalia’s speech at the Presbyterian Christian High School in April 2004.

“Based on the information he had available, U.S. Marshals Service General Counsel also reviewed the allegations and determined that there were no violations of the laws cited in the letters of complaint,” according to a summary report on the investigation.

The documents received Wednesday were initially requested more than three years ago by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Marshals Service originally refused to turn over the documents, citing personal privacy concerns. The newspaper appealed to the U.S. Department of Justice – the department that has jurisdiction in FOIA disputes – and it ruled in May that the newspaper’s request should be honored and the documents turned over.The documents include a case summary, copies of witnesses’ statements and other pertinent records.


“It’s unfortunate that it took well more than two years, and that the American had to jump through all kinds of hoops, to get this information,” Executive Editor Kathleen Williams said. “It’s a sign of the contempt these agencies, which are ostensibly accountable to the public, have for sunshine laws.”

Down in the comments people ask why the American fought so hard over such a supposedly small thing.

One of the most frequent questions I used to get as a reporter was, “What do you want to know that for?” It’s your pretty standard deflection, turning the argument into an attempt to suss out what I was writing about. Since I usually made it a policy to be very open about the direction of my stories, preferring to have the screaming matches with public officials as early in the process as possible so I could spend less time justifying my existence after the fact, I rarely had a problem saying, “If you don’t want to answer the question, I have no problem saying in print that you didn’t answer the question.” Which usually got results because it sounded scarier than it was.

What did I want to know that for? I wanted to know it because I was entitled to know it in accordance with the law. A journalism acquaintance of mine who moves in much more rarefied circles than I did used to FOIA the travel and credit reimbursement records of public officials who’d be shirty with her, just for kicks. There’s always a point to having information, information for information’s sake, more information rather than less, because you never know when it’s going to come up. Reporters are pack rats, we keep voluminous paper files of every kind of junk imaginable because you never know when you’re going to need to pull out your document to prove something you never even considered six years ago. There’s no such thing as TMI. There are reporters who eschew FOIA completely, who say they never get useful info out of it, but I’ve seen what you do get eventually and it’s never not worth the fight to convince public officials to comply with the laws they’ve taken an oath to uphold.

What do you want to know that for? What do you need that document for? Why do you need paper copies of all the budgets for the entire city 10 years running? Well, mostly because I wanna and you hafta, and the real question is, do you want to pay your lawyers $10,000 to spend six months fighting about it when you know you’re gonna have to give it to me anyway? What do I want it for? Why do you want to keep it from me? Which becomes a whole other story, and is half the fun, anyway.


6 thoughts on “Seizing Reporters’ Recorders? No Problem!

  1. Heh.
    You wanna know what cops threaten their kids with?
    With cameras.

  2. Jesus Christ, that’s a glacier-slow investigation. This wasn’t exactly the complexity of the fucking BCCI scandal, after all.

  3. IIRC, Ashcroft went into the Justice Department with the admonition that FOIA requests were to be responded to as slowly as possible, with the presumption being that the person was NOT entitled to the information, rather than the reverse. Sounds as if things haven’t changed.

  4. “You work for me. What are you trying to hide?” Funny how the government is so quick to use the “innocent people have nothing to fear” line to justify its own surveillance, but becomes a champion of privacy when it comes to oversight by some of the people it exists to serve.

  5. What did I want to know that for? I wanted to know it because I was entitled to know it in accordance with the law.
    Apparently there’s a European artist at work in the UK who used the British equivalent of FOIA to make a short film about how her every movement was captured on CCTV (being careful on grounds of privacy to pixellate out all the faces of the people around her, leading to a rather eerie effect). Same principle at work.
    Then you get stuff like this. Zimbabwe’s government wants to bug emails and phone calls with impunity.
    Offered for observation without comment:The [Zimbabwean] government says it is similar to anti-terror laws in the UK and US.

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