Why the SCOTUS Cellphone Decision is a Win for Press Freedom

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[Commentary] According to the Supreme Court, police need a warrant to search the cellphones of people they arrest. The unanimous decision, which was handed down, is being heralded as a major victory for privacy rights and a landmark case with implications far beyond cellphones.

Many of the most important debates surrounding press freedom and privacy right now focus on how our fundamental freedoms, so long expressed and protected in the physical world, will translate to the digital age.

In response to the ruling Geoffrey King of the Committee to Protect Journalists said, "Today's decision closes a dangerous loophole faced by journalists who use mobile devices for news-gathering and reporting." The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, National Press Photographers Association and other news organizations filed a brief in the cases at the Supreme Court arguing that cellphone searches can interfere with news-gathering.

"A typical journalist's phone contains a wealth of private data," the news organizations wrote in the brief. "At any time a journalist's phone may include drafts of stories, interviews, corresponding photos or video, information about sources, and other confidential information necessary for reporting."

The decision is an important recognition that advances in our technology shouldn't result in erosions of our liberty. The case comes at a moment of renewed interest and concern for how government and law enforcement are using cellphones to track people. While the case is not likely to have an immediate impact on the practices of the NSA, it may create a new opening in that debate down the road.

[Stearns is Director, Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation]

Why the SCOTUS Cellphone Decision is a Win for Press Freedom