It’s not unheard of for law enforcement to demand records and documents from the media in the course of an investigation.  Such demands are most often refused, with the press citing confidentiality and First Amendment protections.

But then there is the matter of the FBI demanding that USA Today turn over the records that would have identified those who read a story the paper published about a shooting in Florida in which two agents were killed.

This is what the FBI wanted:

The subpoena, issued in April, demands the production of records containing IP addresses and other identifying information “for computers and other electronic devices” that accessed the story during a 35-minute time frame starting at 8:03 p.m. on the day of the shooting.

There was no more specific information on when the feds wanted such information, aside from a vague assertion it was part of an investigation.

Under the glare of publicity, the FBI withdrew its demand for reader information. USA Today’s publisher said:

“Being forced to tell the government who reads what on our websites is a clear violation of the First Amendment…”

Indeed it is. And it’s a good thing the FBI realized it was wrong. But it should never have come to this. Government agencies constantly test the Constitution’s boundaries, seeking ways to expand their authority and the expense of liberty. In this instance, the demand was so out there, the agency had no choice but to retreat willingly, or face judicial sanction. We may not always be so fortunate.