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Justice Department backs off on secret seizure of reporters’ records

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Among other things, the government will have to give advance notice to the news media about subpoena requests for reporters' phone records unless the attorney general determines that "for compelling reasons" such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the leak investigation. 

"It is expected that only the rare case would present the attorney general with the requisite compelling reasons to justify a delayed notification," the Justice Department report issued Friday said.

Also under the new guidelines, the government will issue search warrants directed at a reporter's email only when that reporter is the focus of a criminal investigation for conduct not connected to ordinary newsgathering activities.

"Under this revised policy, the department would not seek search warrants … if the sole purpose is the investigation of a person other than the member of the news media," the report stated. The Attorney General himself would have to approve all such search warrants.

Reaction to the new guidelines was generally positive.

Erin Madigan White, the AP's senior media relations manager, said the news agency "is gratified that the Department of Justice took our concerns seriously.”

“The description of the new guidelines released today indicates they will result in meaningful, additional protection for journalists,” she said. “We'll obviously be reviewing them more closely when the actual language of the guidelines is released, but we are heartened by this step."

David Anderson, an expert in media law at the University of Texas at Austin, said the changes would make a "substantial difference" because US attorneys who want news media records would have to "jump through some hoops" to get them, according to a Reuters report.

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