Justice Dept. Drops Subpoena Seeking USA Today Readers

June 7, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department late Friday withdrew its subpoena ordering media organization USA Today to turn over records identifying readers of a story about a Feb. 2 shootout in Florida that killed two FBI agents and injured three others.

The FBI was trying to track down a child sexual exploitation offender for reasons it did not explain. The agency withdrew the subpoena after finding the suspect through other means.

“Being forced to tell the government who reads what on our websites is a clear violation of the First Amendment,” USA Today publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth said in a statement. “The FBI’s subpoena asks for private information about readers of our journalism.”

She also called the subpoena surprising considering President Joe Biden’s recent statements condemning law enforcement investigations directed at the media.

Gunfire erupted at the Sunrise, Fla., apartment while FBI agents served a subpoena on a man suspected of possessing child pornography. They found him through his IP address.

The man inside fired through the door at the agents before taking his own life. 

Gannet, the parent company of McLean, Va.-based USA Today, was represented by Charles D. Tobin from the law firm Ballard Spahr in its effort to resist the subpoena. Tobin wrote a letter to the FBI May 22 saying the IP addresses the FBI sought “fall squarely under the protections of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Attorney General’s regulations for subpoenas to the news media.”

The subpoena demanded IP addresses and other records “for computers and other electronic devices” that accessed the story during 35 minutes beginning at 8:03 p.m. on the day of the shooting.

In a related move, the Justice Department announced Friday it no longer would secretly search reporters’ records while it investigated leaks of classified information.

“Going forward, consistent with the President’s direction, this Department of Justice – in a change to its longstanding practice – will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs,” a Justice Department statement said.

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