The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists strongly objects to a decision by a Superior Court judge to authorize a local police department to execute a search warrant against New Brunswick Today in order to recover an old water meter that was used to investigate alleged corruption at the New Brunswick Water Utility.
The search warrant was signed by Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Colleen M. Flynn at 3:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 20. Less than a half hour later, two New Brunswick Police officers knocked on the doors of the newspaper in search of the water meter as well as the memory card from the camera that was used to produce a broadcast about the water utility.
After a cordial 13-minute conversation that was recorded on video by Editor Charlie Kratovil, the water meter was turned over to the police.
Kratovil told the officers the broadcast was live streamed on Facebook so no storage device exists.
Search warrants against news organizations are very rare.
They can have chilling effects on journalists and deter them from investigating instances of government misconduct. They also circumvent the New Jersey Shield Law and the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, laws which were enacted to protect against such governmental seizures by providing a judicial subpoena process where journalists and news organization have an opportunity to be heard before being required to disclose or provide such sought after material.
In this case, the water meter was given to Kratovil by a confidential source, and it was featured in a video that was posted on the newspaper’s Facebook page on Dec. 16.
In that video, Kratovil showed viewers an old water meter that he said came from a local business where, curiously, the meter showed water usage to be zero.
“I don’t know,’’ Kratovil told his viewers. “It looks like this meter might have seen a little bit more water go through it. We’ve been exploring what could potentially lead to this, and we actually showed this to someone who used to work at the New Brunswick Water Utility, and he said – and I quote – ‘This is proof there is a crime committed here.’ ’’
It is the nature of journalism that reporters sometimes receive leaked information, including material that is illegally obtained by a third party, but that does not make it illegal for journalists to use it.
Perhaps the most famous example of leaked information obtained by a third party is The Pentagon Papers.
In that landmark 1971 case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of The New York Times to publish a classified military report about American involvement in Vietnam that had been provided to the newspaper by a military-analyst-turned-whistler-blower named Daniel Ellsberg.
The revelations helped turn public opinion against the war.
In the New Brunswick case, the “leaked information’’ is an old water meter. By calling the old water meter “stolen property,’’ the New Brunswick police found a pretext that allowed them to use the court system to muzzle Kratovil.
That’s the real issue.
If someone is tampering with water meters, clearly honest people are paying the price. Why on earth would any governmental agency not want this investigated as fully as possible? Instead, the actions of the New Brunswick Police Department suggest they are more interested in chilling the First Amendment and preventing New Brunswick Today from digging further into a matter of real public concern.
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