Journalists continue to face challenges protecting their work and source information.
On August 11, local police raided a newsroom in Marion County, Kansas, and earlier this month, the Las Vegas Review-Journal finally succeeded in its lengthy legal battle to protect the confidential sources and work product of murdered investigative journalist Jeff German.
In July, the PRESS Act—a federal shield law that would provide greater protections for reporters and their sources—passed the House Judiciary Committee. However, the bill still faces an uphill battle in the Senate. If enacted, the PRESS Act will shield journalists from being forced to reveal protected information and the identities of confidential sources.
Defamation lawsuits remain a persistent threat to members of the news media and journalists. News organizations also continue to face difficulties accessing public records.
Nineteen assaults on journalists have occurred since April. It is on par with the number of assaults reported as of October 2022.
In September, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez attempted to grab a cellphone from a reporter questioning him about an ethics complaint. Similarly, a Marion County Record reporter suffered a hand injury when her phone was seized during the raid of her newsroom.
As the 2024 presidential election nears, news media members may encounter additional challenges, including increased anti-press rhetoric from candidates. Former President Donald Trump is the current front-runner for the Republican nomination. Trump has a history of expressing hatred towards press members and has repeatedly called for the United States to "open up" libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue news organizations for defamation. In July, a federal judge dismissed a $475 million defamation lawsuit Trump brought against CNN over the network's characterization of his election fraud claims as the "big lie."
The Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to hear cases challenging longstanding constitutional limits on defamation claims. In October, the justices refused to hear an appeal by a former senate candidate who lost a libel suit against the New York Times. While concurring in the denial, Justice Thomas reiterated his belief that the Court "should reconsider the actual-malice standard."
Such defamation lawsuits highlight the need for legislation allowing for the quick dismissal of meritless "strategic lawsuits against public participation." As of October 2023, only 33 states and the District of Columbia have an "anti-SLAPP" law. Local journalists in states without these protections are particularly vulnerable to defamation suits since they may lack the resources to endure costly litigation. For instance, a local newspaper in Wisconsin—a state without an anti-SLAPP law—has been fighting a defamation suit brought by a state senator since 2021. The case spurred the introduction of a bill that would limit a public official's ability to bring defamation suits against news organizations to chill reporting.
The most significant press freedom incident in the last six months occurred in August when local law enforcement executed a search warrant on the offices of the Marion County Record—a weekly newspaper published in Marion, Kansas, with a circulation of just over 4,000. A second warrant was executed at the home of Record Publisher and Editor Eric Meyer.
The raid, led by Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, was conducted in response to allegations by a local business owner that the Record had illegally obtained information about her prior DUI conviction. That allegation was unfounded. Body camera footage from the raid shows Cody taking files from reporter Deb Gruver's desk—which wasn't mentioned in the warrant application—and commenting, "Hmm. Keeping a personal file on me. I don't care." It is believed that the Record was investigating allegations of wrongdoing against Cody and the police force. Ultimately, officers seized four computers, two personal cell phones belonging to reporters, and several files. Five days later, the County Attorney withdrew the search warrant and ordered that all confiscated reporting materials and equipment be returned due to "insufficient evidence" to support the search.
Meyer's 98-year-old mother and co-owner of the paper died of a sudden heart attack the day after police came to her home. The Record has stated that her death was due, in part, to the stress of the raid. Several reporters at the Record have also suffered health consequences, and Gruver resigned from the paper, stating, "I need to do what's best for my mental health, which isn't the greatest at the moment."
In October, the Nevada Supreme Court decided that the state's shield law survives a reporter's death, Jeff German, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal on September 3, 2022. The Court called for a third-party team of investigators, rather than law enforcement officials, to search German's journalistic materials for the murder investigation. It was a significant win for the news media and strengthened legal protections for journalistic work products in this country.
President Joe Biden continues to be less accessible to the press than many of his predecessors. During a trip to Ireland earlier this year, Biden did not follow the tradition of holding a news conference abroad. He often makes televised speeches but frequently avoids taking questions directly from the White House press pool following such remarks. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre continues to hold daily press briefings, a practice that was suspended for more than a year during the Trump administration.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted access to court proceedings. For instance, before 2020, Supreme Court arguments were only available to members of the public who could attend in person. During the pandemic, courts across the country began conducting virtual proceedings, and live audio of Supreme Court oral arguments was made available on the Supreme Court website. Free press advocates have encouraged the Court to continue this practice permanently to provide journalists and the public with greater insight into the judicial process. The Supreme Court has not officially adopted this policy, but it has continued to make live audio available.
Additionally, each federal Court of appeals provides live audio of its arguments. On the other hand, federal district courts have rolled back some of the changes made during the pandemic. In September, the Judicial Conference of the United States voted to continue allowing remote access to civil and bankruptcy proceedings. However, this is only permitted when no witness is testifying.
Access to public records continues to be a concern. Several bills have been introduced at the state level to increase transparency and access to records. A bill is currently pending in the Nebraska Legislature to reduce fees for records requests. It would categorize police body-camera videos that involve police custody deaths as public records after the conclusion of grand jury proceedings. Similarly, a group called the "Arkansas Citizens for Transparency" drafted a proposal incorporating FOIA into the state constitution. It comes after the Governor of Arkansas signed new exceptions to the state's Freedom of Information Act into law.
In May, a photojournalist was arrested while documenting a vigil for a homeless man killed on a subway platform. A judge has since deferred the disorderly conduct charge, and New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board has opened a probe into the arrest. A few weeks later, a freelance journalist was shoved to the ground and arrested while filming police officers detaining someone else. Camera footage captured at the scene shows the reporter asking multiple times for the officer's badge number before being told he was under arrest. Charges against the freelance journalist for resisting arrest and failure to obey are pending.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich remains detained in Russia, arrested in March after being accused of espionage. A Russian court denied Gershkovich's latest appeal in October.
The potential prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by the United States government continues to trouble press freedom advocates. Prosecutors during the Trump administration began building a criminal case against Assange and accused him of violating the Espionage Act by soliciting, obtaining, and publishing classified documents. There is concern that these charges, which continue to be pursued under the Biden administration, would establish a precedent for criminalizing newsgathering activities.