FBI ordered US newspaper to pass on information about its readers for a case
A US newspaper is resisting a demand by the FBI to hand over information about its readers as part of a case involving two dead agents.
The FBI sent a subpoena to USA Today ordering it to help track down the readers of a story about a suspect in a child pornography case who fatally shot two FBI agents in February.
The subpoena, which was served in April, came to light this week after Gannett, the newspaper’s publisher, filed documents in federal court asking a judge to quash the subpoena.
Maribel Perez Wadsworth, the publisher of USA Today and president of the USA Today Network, said the government wants the publisher to hand over “private information” about its readers and said it was fighting the subpoena to protect the relationship between its readers and journalists.
The company also contacted the FBI before asking a judge to quash the subpoena but did not receive “any substantive reply nor any meaningful explanation of the asserted basis for the subpoena,” she said.
“We intend to fight the subpoena’s demand for identifying information about individuals who viewed the USA Today news report,” Ms Wadsworth said.
“Being forced to tell the government who reads what on our websites is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”
The news comes as the Justice Department has disclosed in recent weeks that it seized the email and phone records of reporters in at least three separate instances during the Trump administration.
The subpoena asks for information about anyone who clicked on the article for a period of about 35 minutes on the day after the shooting. It seeks the IP addresses – which can sometimes be used to identify the location of a computer, the company or organisation it belongs to, and where it was registered – along with mobile phone identification information of the readers.
While the subpoena does not ask specifically for the names of those who read the story, such identification information could easily lead agents to the readers.
It is unclear why the FBI was seeking information about the USA Today story in particular, even though numerous other news organisations, including The Associated Press, had reported extensively on the Florida shooting, one of the bloodiest days in the FBI’s history.
The suspect opened fire on the agents when they arrived to serve a search warrant in a child exploitation case. The two agents, Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger, were killed and three others were wounded.
The FBI agent who signed the subpoena to Gannett has worked for years on child exploitation cases and has testified in several criminal cases related to child pornography offences, according to newspaper accounts and other public records.
The subpoena – first reported by Politico – says the information is needed as part of a criminal investigation. Federal officials would not provide additional details about the investigation.
The actions of the FBI have been criticised by free speech activists who have called for more protection for journalists.
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said: “This is an extraordinary demand that goes to the very heart of the First Amendment. For good reason, the courts have generally refused to give the government access to this kind of sensitive information except in the most unusual circumstances.
He added: “This subpoena, especially when viewed alongside the subpoenas that the Justice Department served under the Trump administration in an effort to obtain journalists’ records, strongly suggests we need more robust protection for records that implicate the freedoms of speech and the press.”