Ask SPLC: Can police search our newsroom?

Q: Can the police or campus security search our newsroom to get unpublished photos, notes or videos?

A: Almost never. The federal Privacy Protection Act makes it illegal for law enforcement officers or government officials to search a newsroom (or anywhere else that newsgathering materials are kept, such as the trunk of a reporter’s car) in connection with a criminal investigation. If police or prosecutors wants to see unpublished materials, they must issue a subpoena and give the journalist a chance to oppose the subpoena in court. 

However, it’s unclear how much protection the act offers if your principal or dean demands to search the newsroom for evidence of a violation of school rules rather than criminal conduct. This is why it’s advisable to store extra-sensitive interviews and documents off-site, not on school computers or servers.

Every week, Student Press Law Center attorneys answer a frequently asked question about student media law in “Ask SPLC.”

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