In 1980, the United States Congress enacted a law called the Privacy Protection Act that makes it illegal for law enforcement to seize materials used by journalists for their work pursuant to a search warrant. Law enforcement is required to obtain a court subpoena for the information. The difference between the two is that the former allows law enforcement to execute the search immediately versus the latter that requires the journalist to produce the specified material at a designated time and place. Additionally, a journalist would be allowed to move to quash or otherwise object to the subpoena requests prior to producing the requested information. The only exceptions to this requirement are if the documents are “necessary to prevent the death of, or serious bodily injury to, a human being,” if the journalist in question is suspected of committing a crime or if law enforcement believes the documents will be destroyed if they are not seized immediately.
At the state level, many states have what is referred to as a “shield law” that provides either an absolute privilege or a qualified privilege to refuse to disclose sources used or information obtained in the course of news gathering. Iowa has not adopted such a law. However, such a privilege has been judicially created by the Iowa Supreme Court that protects confidential sources, unpublished information and reporter’s notes. Iowa has no specific statutory provisions regarding searches of newsroom.
Journalists should keep a copy of the federal Privacy Protection Act handy for reference. The Act is online at: https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-661-privacy-protection-act-1980
Should a journalist be confronted with a search warrant that is believed to be in violation of the Privacy Protection Act or a subpoena requesting information that may be protected from disclosure, the journalist should immediately contact legal counsel. If law enforcement violates the Privacy Protection Act, the journalist may recover damages of “not less” than $1,000 plus “reasonable attorney’s fees” and other reasonable “litigation costs.”