ACLU of Arizona Says Arrest of Newspaper Owners Stifles Freedom of Press, Violates Privacy Rights of Readers

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
October 19, 2007 12:00 am

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PHOENIX – The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona today blasted the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for arresting two Phoenix New Times owners, saying the arrests appear to be retaliatory in nature and part of a dragnet effort to uncover confidential information about New Times readers.

“The First Amendment provides strong protections to journalists investigating matters of significant public importance and when government retaliates against journalists for exercising this fundamental right it sets a dangerous precedent that strikes at the core of our democratic freedoms,” said Alessandra Soler Meetze, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona. “The ACLU is committed to further investigating whether both the arrests and the overly broad subpoena constitute an attempt to silence the New Times in violation of the First Amendment.”

Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin were arrested late Thursday night by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies on misdemeanor charges of revealing a grand jury subpoena. The county attorney is also accusing the editors of criminal wrongdoing for publishing Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s home address in an online column published by the alternative weekly in 2004, despite the fact that his address was already made publicly available elsewhere. Attempts to criminalize the dissemination of information already in the public domain have been found to violate the First Amendment, the ACLU said.

Published in Lacey and Larkin’s newspaper, the grand jury subpoena issued by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office demanded “all documents related to articles and other content published by Phoenix New Times newspaper in print and on the Phoenix New Times Web site, regarding Sheriff Joe Arpaio from January 1, 2004 to the present.” The subpoena goes on to demand reporters’ notes and tapes, along with information on readers who have visited the New Times website since 2004. The information demanded by the subpoena includes “cookies,” internet domain names, browsers and operating systems used by online readers – all of which could reveal highly personal, confidential information about the online activities of thousands of users.

“This sort of dragnet approach will create a chilling effect on people’s willingness to view online materials,” said Daniel Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona. “Demanding records of all of the visitors to the paper’s website is breathtakingly inappropriate. Many courts around the country have found that people have a right to read and receive information anonymously.”

The ACLU routinely litigates cases across the country to protect the right to speak freely and anonymously online, and has defended journalists’ rights to gather the news free from government interference.

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