The Society of Professional Journalists NorCal chapter Condemns SFPD Search Warrant Against Indybay

SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee (SPJ NorCal FOIC) is a three-decades-old group within the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter — comprised of SPJ NorCal member volunteers — fighting for press rights, open access, and government transparency in our region.

SPJ NorCal’s FOIC condemns the San Francisco Police Department’s attempt to compel a news organization to reveal unpublished material in violation of the California Shield Law and the police department’s own policy. It further condemns the department’s gag order preventing the subject of the search warrant from revealing this violation to the public.

Independent media collaborative Indybay revealed last week that a San Francisco Police Department officer issued them a search warrant in January. The warrant sought information that might reveal the identity of an anonymous writer on Indybay’s website who had published a post claiming they had smashed several windows at the San Francisco Police Credit Union building. The post was created through Indybay’s newswire, through which anyone can publish material. The warrant demanded Indybay share any information that might lead to the identity of the poster, including their IP address — and simultaneously barred Indybay from revealing publicly that they were facing this demand.

SPJ NorCal’s FOIC is troubled that this warrant was issued counter to the stipulations of the California Shield Law, especially as the SFPD’s own internal order acknowledges: “Warrants seeking unpublished information obtained in newsgathering or the identity of a source are prohibited.” Following the raid on journalist Bryan Carmody’s home in 2019, the SFPD agreed in settling litigation to better train its officers on First Amendment and Shield Law protections. We are dismayed to find this training was ineffective in preventing an officer from issuing this warrant to Indybay and a court from approving it.

After receiving the warrant, Indybay sought assistance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which helped Indybay protest the warrant and gag order. According to a statement from the EFF, San Francisco police officers agreed to stop pursuing the warrant. Still, it took the involvement of the City Attorney’s Office and further hearings for the department to agree to lift the gag order and confirm that the warrant was invalid. None of these proceedings would have been necessary had the police department followed its own policy and California law from the start.

The SFPD issued its own statement following the incident, acknowledging it had voided the warrant. The statement claimed that “The unusual circumstance brings up interesting questions about the Shield Law and the scope of its protections. The SFPD, however, has no interest in exploring or litigating the issue further.”

SPJ NorCal’s FOIC disagrees — the case raises no questions about the Shield Law’s scope, which have repeatedly been found by courts to apply to nontraditional news media, blogs, and freelancers. The police department’s stated disinterest in further discussion is disappointing given the evident need for increased awareness of this issue among officers to prevent them from again flouting the law.

SPJ NorCal calls on San Francisco law enforcement, courts and the City Attorney’s Office to improve internal education about reporter privileges. When law enforcement disregards laws designed to protect journalists, newsgathering and the distribution of information are chilled, to the detriment of the public interest.