Over the past month, the independent news outlet Indybay has quietly fought off an unlawful search warrant and gag order served by the San Francisco Police Department. Today, a court lifted the gag order and confirmed the warrant is void. The police also promised the court to not seek another warrant from Indybay in its investigation.

Nevertheless, Indybay was unconstitutionally gagged from speaking about the warrant for more than a month. And the SFPD once again violated the law despite past assurances that it was putting safeguards in place to prevent such violations.

EFF provided pro bono legal representation to Indybay throughout the process.

Indybay’s experience highlights a worrying police tactic of demanding unpublished source material from journalists, in violation of clearly established shield laws. Warrants like the one issued by the police invade press autonomy, chill news gathering, and discourage sources from contributing. While this is a victory, Indybay was still gagged from speaking about the warrant, and it would have had to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight the warrant without pro bono counsel. Other small news organizations might not be so lucky. 

It started on January 18, 2024, when an unknown member of the public published a story on Indybay’s unique community-sourced newswire, which allows anyone to publish news and source material on the website. The author claimed credit for smashing windows at the San Francisco Police Credit Union.

On January 24, police sought and obtained a search warrant that required Indybay to turn over any text messages, online identifiers like IP address, or other unpublished information that would help reveal the author of the story. The warrant also ordered Indybay not to speak about the warrant for 90 days. With the help of EFF, Indybay responded that the search warrant was illegal under both California and federal law and requested that the SFPD formally withdraw it. After several more requests and shortly before the deadline to comply with the search warrant, the police agreed to not pursue the warrant further “at this time.” The warrant became void when it was not executed after 10 days under California law, but the gag order remained in place.

Indybay went to court to confirm the warrant would not be renewed and to lift the gag order. It argued it was protected by California and federal shield laws that make it all but impossible for law enforcement to use a search warrant to obtain unpublished source material from a news outlet. California law, Penal Code § 1524(g), in particular, mandates that “no warrant shall issue” for that information. The Federal Privacy Protection Act has some exceptions, but they were clearly not applicable in this situation. Nontraditional and independent news outlets like Indybay are covered by these laws (Indybay fought this same fight more than a decade ago when one of its photographers successfully quashed a search warrant). And when attempting to unmask a source, an IP address can sometimes be as revealing as a reporter’s notebook. In a previous case, EFF established that IP addresses are among the types of unpublished journalistic information typically protected from forced disclosure by law.

In addition, Indybay argued that the gag order was an unconstitutional content-based prior restraint on speech—noting that the government did not have a compelling interest in hiding unlawful investigative techniques.

Rather than fight the case, the police conceded the warrant was void, promised not to seek another search warrant for Indybay’s information during the investigation, and agreed to lift the gag order. A San Francisco Superior Court Judge signed an order confirming that.

That this happened at all is especially concerning since the SFPD had agreed to institute safeguards following its illegal execution of a search warrant against freelance journalist Bryan Carmody in 2019. In settling a lawsuit brought by Carmody, the SFPD agreed to ensure all its employees were aware of its policies concerning warrants to journalists. As a result the department instituted internal guidance and procedures, which do not all appear to have been followed with Indybay.

Moreover, the search warrant and gag order should never have been signed by the court given that it was obviously directed to a news organization. We call on the court and the SFPD to meet with those representing journalists to make sure that we don't have to deal with another unconstitutional gag order and search warrant in another few years.

The San Francisco Police Department's public statement on this case is incomplete. It leaves out the fact that Indybay was gagged for more than a month and that it was only Indybay's continuous resistance that prevented the police from acting on the warrant. It also does not mention whether the police department's internal policies were followed in this case. For one thing, this type of warrant requires approval from the chief of police before it is sought, not after. 

Read more here: 

Stipulated Order

Motion to Quash

Search Warrant

Trujillo Declaration

Burdett Declaration

SFPD Press Release