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California governor signs law expanding protections for journalists

California Governor Jerry Brown (C) speaks during ceremonies before signing AB60 into law in Los Angeles October 3, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Prous
California Governor Jerry Brown (C) speaks during ceremonies before signing AB60 into law in Los Angeles October 3, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Prous

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law on Thursday to give journalists in the state five days' notice before government agencies serve subpoenas on their records held by third parties, such as phone companies and internet service providers.

The law, which was approved by unanimous votes in the California Assembly and Senate, expands on the state's existing shield law for journalists and will apply to subpoenas sought in state courts.

The California law comes after two cases earlier this year that sparked debate about whether the U.S. Justice Department had infringed on the free-speech rights of journalists in aggressive probes of government leaks.

In one case, the Justice Department seized phone records from the Associated Press without notifying the news organization during an investigation into leaks about a 2012 plot in Yemen to bomb a U.S. airliner.

Prosecutors also obtained a warrant to search Fox News correspondent James Rosen's emails and he was named a "co-conspirator" in a federal leaks probe stemming from his reporting on North Korea.

After the disclosure of those investigations, the U.S. Justice Department in July outlined a series of measures to curb the ability of federal prosecutors to seize reporters' records while investigating leaks to the media.

As part of that directive, the Justice Department has pledged in most cases to notify news organizations if a subpoena is being sought to obtain information such as phone records. It has said it will classify journalists' records held by third parties as being subject to the same policies.

An exception to the Justice Department's new notification procedure will apply if notice would "present a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation," stated an agency document outlining the policy change.

The California law, which was sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, mirrors the new regulations put in place at the federal level, said the association's general counsel, Jim Ewert.

"If a reporter stores information in the cloud or on Google or on a server off-site, now the reporter is going to get notice and the publisher or the station manager is going to get notice of that subpoena," Ewert said.

The new law, which takes effect on January 1, will require any government agency or individual to provide five days' notice to reporters and their news organizations before seeking a subpoena of journalistic information from a third party, such as an internet service provider or cell phone company.

Under California's existing shield law, reporters and their employers were already guaranteed five days' notice if a subpoena was sought for information in their possession.

But the law did not foresee the rise of mobile communications and cloud computing, in which information is stored off-site using servers connected to the Internet, the bill's author, Democratic state Senator Ted Lieu, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Cooney)

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