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Associated Press lawsuit challenges boundaries of law enforcement deception




The FBI headquarters in Washington
The FBI headquarters in Washington
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Sting operations are one of the most helpful tools at law enforcement’s disposal when it comes to catching particularly wary criminals.

A cop might go undercover as a minor soliciting sex on the Internet in order to capture a sex offender, or a DEA agent might impersonate a heroin addict to conduct a controlled drug buy as part of evidence building against narcotics traffickers. But what happens when police impersonate a journalist?

The answer, at least in the case of the Associated Press, is to sue. The AP is bringing legal action against the FBI after a sting operation that involved impersonating an AP journalist and creating a false AP news story as part of a sting operation that involved a 15-year-old bomb threat suspect in Washington, who the FBI emailed a link to a fake AP news story. When the suspect clicked the link, it downloaded surveillance software to his computer that allowed the FBI to track him.

When the news of the sting broke, AP filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in the hopes of getting more information, but the government has said they could be waiting almost two years for the materials. The AP filed suit, accusing the government of freezing them out.

Under current law, there is nothing that explicitly prohibits law enforcement from impersonating journalists in sting operations. While the AP’s lawsuit doesn’t allege the government is violating the First Amendment by impersonating a journalist, it does bring up concerns about how the practice could jeapordize the credibility of news organizations.

Do you think law enforcement should be allowed to impersonate journalists in sting operations? Are there other professions that might also be ethically questionable for law enforcement to impersonate? What are the legal implications of this lawsuit for the AP and the FBI?

THE REPORTERS COMMITTEE FOR FREEDOM OF THE PRESS, and THE ASSOCIATED PRESS v. FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, and UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

Guests:

Mary-Rose Papandrea, professor of law at the University of North Carolina School of Law and a constitutional and media law expert

Aaron Caplan, associate professor of law at Loyola Law School