Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ claim this month of an unprecedented government crackdown on leaks of classified information, two free press groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to shed more light on the Trump administration’s power to monitor journalists.
The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation are seeking records that outline the scope of the ability of law enforcement and other investigative authorities to conduct surveillance on the media. The lawsuit, which comes after the groups filed a Freedom of Information request for such documents in October, is an attempt to compel the Justice Department, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Director of National Intelligence to hand them over.
“Recent reports of government investigations into journalists, political dissenters, and political protesters call into question the adequacy of existing limitations on the government’s surveillance authority to protect First Amendment rights,” the suit argues.
The suit comes just weeks after Sessions told Congress that his agency had launched 27 investigations into leaks of classified information. While there’s been just one such prosecution by the Trump administration so far, that number of inquiries would represent a huge uptick from the attorney general’s predecessors. It also follows the Justice Department’s demand earlier this year that the web host of a site used to organize Inauguration Day protests share 1.3 million IP addresses with the government. (The DOJ eventually dropped that request.)
The suit aims to make public any federal records of those actions running into constitutional or statutory limitations. It also hopes to reveal any revisions to the Justice Department’s “Media Guidelines,” internal rules governing law enforcement’s ability to obtain records and information about journalists. In August, Sessions suggested that his department was revisiting those policies.
“The apparent hostility toward the press from senior government officials combined with increasing government surveillance creates a dangerous environment for reporters and whistleblowers,” Knight Institute Staff Attorney Carrie DeCell said in a statement. “The public has a right to know if there are sufficient limits on surveillance of journalists to ensure a free press.”