San Francisco politicians pride themselves on defending civil liberties in the face of unprecedented attacks by the White House. But when a Donald Trump-style crackdown on citizens’ rights took place in their own backyard, the city’s Democratic leaders had a different kind of response.
They supported it.
San Francisco police (SFPD) raided the home of a freelance journalist on Friday, handcuffed him for hours and confiscated his devices in an apparent effort to uncover a police leak to the reporter. The state’s leading newspapers, along with first amendment advocates across the US, have decried the raid as an extraordinary and flagrant violation of press freedoms. But as pressure on the city has intensified in recent days, Democratic leaders have chosen to explicitly endorse the police investigation and tactics, criticize the journalist – or remain entirely silent about mounting free speech concerns.
“What happened was unlike anything I’ve seen in quite awhile in this country,” said David Snyder, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California activist group. “For it to happen in a city that likes to position itself as a champion of civil liberties makes it all the more shocking … Days have passed, and city officials still seem incapable of rising to the level of outrage that I think this incident requires.”
Authorities said the raid on the videographer, Bryan Carmody, was part of an investigation into the leak of a confidential police report on the death of Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender. A judge signed search warrants for an investigation into “stolen or embezzled” property, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that the officers confiscated dozens of Carmody’s personal items, including his notebooks, phone, computer, hard drives and cameras.
Reactions from some city leaders seemed to misunderstand basic tenets of free press laws. The San Francisco supervisor Sandra Fewer said of Carmody: “If he were obtaining this information to write a story, it still is illegal to obtain a police report unless it has been officially released.” The law, however, protects journalists’ right to publish stories on law enforcement files, and Fewer later released a statement acknowledging she was “not a legal expert”.
The San Francisco mayor, London Breed, who has previously stood up to Trump over attacks on her city, also defended police on Tuesday, saying the SFPD “went through the appropriate legal process to request a search warrant” and adding: “The police need to continue that internal investigation using legal and appropriate means.”
After the raid, the public defender’s office issued a statement that surprised first amendment activists, saying it was “pleased” police were “working to get to the bottom of” the report leak. In the face of backlash, the public defender Manohar Raju, Adachi’s replacement, later released a clarified comment about the raid that said: “Nothing about this statement should be interpreted as condoning specific police tactics in this matter.”
After publication of this article, a spokesperson said in an email that the public defender’s office had “told the district attorney that we are not in favor of prosecuting Bryan Carmody”, adding: “Our goal is to find the leaker in the police department.”
Other officials have tried to avoid the discussion altogether, including progressive leaders who have consistently made headlines for fighting the president’s policies. All 11 elected members of the San Francisco board of supervisors declined to comment to the Guardian or did not immediately respond to inquiries on Wednesday. The governor, state attorney general and San Francisco city attorney also did not respond to questions.
Following publication of this article, the city supervisor Aaron Peskin condemned the “attack on journalistic freedom”, saying in a statement: “The State Penal Code clearly states that ‘no warrant shall issue’ to compel a journalist to disclose a source. The fact that the Superior Court nevertheless signed warrants authorizing police to conduct the raid on a journalist’s home and to confiscate their belongings boggles my mind.”
Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP
Thomas Burke, Carmody’s lawyer, told the Guardian he was preparing to file motions for the warrants to be quashed and to have the seized materials returned.
“The first step … should never be to issue search warrants with respect to a journalist,” the attorney said, noting that a warrant would “sweep up everything that they have, every story they are currently working on, every story they could’ve worked on in the last three decades”. He called the raid “grossly over-broad and inappropriate”.
An SFPD spokesperson said in a statement that the department “followed all search warrant protocols during service to ensure the safety of the public”.
Snyder said the raid was particularly egregious, but was also just one of several recent cases of hypocritical attacks on the press in California.
The California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, who has repeatedly filed lawsuits challenging Trump, warned two reporters in February that he considered their possession of a list of police officers convicted of crimes to be a violation of the law – and would not rule out the possibility of legal action against the journalists. A month later, police in Sacramento arrested journalists covering a high-profile protest of police brutality.
These cases, in which journalists were doing work that was clearly within the public interest and shielded by state and federal laws, cast doubt on Democrats’ statements opposing Trump’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric, advocates said.
“Are they really champions of [press freedom] or are they just trying to score political points for their electorate, which is also largely against Trump?” said Snyder. Adachi, who was widely celebrated for his passionate defense of civil liberties, “would’ve been outraged by this”, Snyder added.
A shield law in California explicitly protects journalists’ rights to refuse a subpoena to provide sources and unpublished notes.
Responding to supervisor Fewer’s false claim that a journalist would be breaking the law by obtaining a police report, the San Francisco Chronicle editor, Audrey Cooper, noted: “If the nation’s media waited for material to be officially released, virtually no government scandal or misdeed would ever be exposed.” She added: “If it was illegal to report on unreleased information, nearly all of us at The Chronicle would be in jail.”