New York, July 27, 2020 – The New York City Police Department should refrain from subpoenaing journalists’ phone records or other information that could reveal sourcing, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On July 14, a New York-based freelance journalist who works for the Daily Mail received a letter stating that their phone records had been obtained from their cellphone provider, AT&T, and were being used in a leak investigation within the police department, according to the journalist, who asked that their name not be disclosed, citing fear of harming relationships with sources, and a report by the New York Daily News.
A lawyer representing a police officer who was interviewed under suspicion of involvement in the leak sent the journalist a copy of a complaint relating to the case, which stated that the journalist’s records had been subpoenaed from their cellphone provider; when the journalist’s lawyer sought to obtain a copy of the subpoena from the telecom provider, AT&T refused, citing a policy against disclosing subpoenas related to criminal investigations, the journalist said.
“It is inexcusable that the New York Police Department would subpoena a journalist’s phone records, potentially exposing the journalist’s sources without their knowledge or consent,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “The NYPD must disclose to the journalist what, if any, information they obtained from AT&T, and should refrain from pursuing such data in the future.”
An NYPD official told the Daily News that the subpoena was issued before the department changed its regulations about acquiring journalists’ phone and social media records earlier this year, after an incident in February in which the NYPD withdrew a subpoena for data from the Twitter account of New York Post police bureau chief Tina Moore, also as part of a leak investigation, as CPJ documented at the time.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea later issued an apology for subpoenaing that information, according to reports.
When CPJ called the NYPD for comment, a representative told CPJ to send questions via email. CPJ emailed the police department but did not immediately receive any response.
Jim Greer, AT&T’s assistant vice president for corporate communications, told CPJ in an email that, “Like all companies, we are required by law [to] comply with subpoenas from government and law enforcement agencies.”