Disclosure: Up until a few months ago, I was employed by Gizmodo, but was not involved in any way with the iPhone leak. As part of an ongoing partnership, Fast Company sometimes syndicates Gizmodo stories and vice versa.
According to Gizmodo, California’s Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team raided the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen on Friday night while Chen was out to dinner, searching for evidence in connection with the Apple iPhone 4 leak story Gizmodo published last week. The police team broke down his front door (Jason says they “bashed it open”) and searched his house for “a few hours” before Chen even got home. Once he arrived, they served him with a warrant signed by a San Mateo, California judge and confiscated various items from his home. These included four computers, two servers, three hard drives, assorted gadgetry (cameras, iPhone, iPad, cellphones), and, oddly, a box of business cards.
Gaby Darbyshire, COO and legal counsel of Gizmodo’s parent company, Gawker Media, immediately issued a response to the police claiming the raid violated reporter privilege. Reporter privilege (section 1524(g) of the California Penal Code) states that a warrant is not adequate to seize equipment used by a reporter if police or prosecutors are seeking “unpublished information” or undisclosed sources. Darbyshire’s response says, “It is abundantly clear that under the law a search warrant to remove these items was invalid. The appropriate method of obtaining such materials would be the issuance of a subpoena.”
Unusually, Nick Denton, who runs Gawker Media, has remained tight-lipped on the subject, issuing a statement to his employees stating “I hope you can understand that we can’t really discuss this while the
investigation proceeds.” To the outside, he’s said nothing more than “Do bloggers count as journalists? I guess we’ll find out.”
While undoubtedly traumatic for Chen, the police raid may well have been a huge mistake, especially considering, as The Awl suggests, reporter privilege may well apply. Press reaction to Gizmodo’s purchasing of the massive iPhone leak story has been mixed, with some applauding the initiative and some questioning the ethics of buying news. Whatever is eventually determined about the source of the leaked iPhone
prototype, it’ll likely be overshadowed by a potential violation of
First Amendment rights. Raiding a reporter’s home office, especially while the reporter himself is away and potentially at night which was not authorized by the warrant, could cause other media to rally around Gizmodo. Gizmodo and Gawker Media as a whole are expert at playing the underdogs, often against mainstream media–and they may be able to milk the experience as a blow against the rights of an independent press.