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Callahan on New Times Subpoenas and Arrests

October 18, 2007

The following is a personal statement by Christopher Callahan, professor and dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, speaking on his own behalf following grand jury subpoenas for New Times’ records and arrests of the newspaper’s two top executives.

The foundation of our democracy is a free and unfettered press that has the ability to criticize the government without fear of retaliation. The subpoenas of New Times records – and subsequent arrests of top newspaper executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin – represent a grotesque and unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial powers that is a direct threat to freedom of the press.

The effort to secure unpublished work product of New Times reporters who wrote critical stories about Sheriff Joe Arpaio has a chilling effect on the free flow of information to the public. Confidential sources would be much less likely to talk to reporters if they believed their identities could be later uncovered through grand jury investigations.

Truly remarkable, though, is the frontal assault on the rights of citizens. The subpoenas seeking detailed information on the identity and online activities of New Times Web site readers are an invasion of privacy that could have an equally chilling effect on the free press. If readers are worried that government officials are monitoring what they read, they may be reluctant to seek out a wide variety of information sources and viewpoints.

In revealing the existence of the grand jury subpoenas, the New Times may have violated the law. But journalists have a fundamental right to reveal critical information about their government to the public. And without this revelation, the existence of this misuse of government powers may have gone unknown to the public.