Center for Public Research and Leadership
On the evening of October 10, 1974, police appeared at radio station KPFK-FM in Los Angeles with a warrant authorizing them to search the premises for a New World Liberation Front (NWLF) "communique" that took credit for a recent bombing. The officers conducted an intensive 8-hour search-combing files, listening to tapes, and looking through reporters' notes – finally concluding that the NWLF letter was not at the station. The KPFK search warrant was one of six that California law enforcement officials have executed at press offices since 1972. The circumstances surrounding the incident illustrate the rationale behind the recent development of the search technique.
For several years before the KPFK search, the news media had litigated their right not to honor subpoenas from government investigatory bodies and courts. They premised claims of immunity from subpoenas on the first amendment protection of newsgathering and on strengthened shield laws for which they had lobbied." Indeed, when KPFK received the communique from the NWLF, the station was in the process of litigating its previous refusal to respect two subpoenas that sought production of communications from other radical groups. Reiterating the station's policy of not honoring subpoenas prior to judicial challenge, station manager Will Lewis aired the contents of the NWLF letter and offered typed copies of it to press and police, but refused to surrender the original. Confident that a subpoena would mean months of litigation, even if the courts eventually denied Lewis' statutory and constitutional claims, the police resorted to the ex parte search warrant process, allowing them to seize the evidence immediately, if found, and litigate later, if necessary.
James S. Liebman,
Search and Seizure of the Media: A Statutory, Fourth Amendment and First Amendment Analysis,
Stan. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/598