A congressman who passed along to reporters a tape of an illegally intercepted telephone call violated a federal law prohibiting wiretapping, a federal judge in Washington ruled. Legal experts said the logic of the decision could apply to information received by journalists as well and so affect routine news reporting, reports the New York Times. The case was brought by U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) against a House colleague, Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat. It arose from a conference call in 1996 in which Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, discussed how to deal with a finding against him by a House ethics subcommittee. Boehner participated by cellphone.
A Florida couple, Alice and John Martin, recorded the call using a radio scanner. They delivered the tape to McDermott, who passed it along to The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Martins pleaded guilty to using a radio scanner to intercept a call and were fined $500 each. Thomas F. Hogan, chief judge of the Federal District Court in Washington, will decide next month how much McDermott must pay Boehner, who seeks lawyers’ fees and punitive damages. The Times reports that Hogan’s ruling could have broad implications for reporters. George Freeman, an assistant general counsel of The New York Times Company, said, “Judge Hogan’s decision may be extremely harmful since it goes well beyond past cases to hold that a totally passive recipient of information, who did not solicit or pay for it, can be held liable. Under this new rule, much of the information reporters acquire every day, from the Pentagon Papers on down, would become legally suspect.”