Court Rejects CNN Appeal Over Raid
Jun. 01, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court rejected a Cable News Network appeal today but it appears unlikely CNN will have to defend itself against accusations it violated a Montana couple's constitutional rights because its camera crew accompanied federal agents who raided their ranch.
The justices, without any comment, left intact a federal appeals court ruling that would subject CNN to a trial on those accusations.
But just last week, the nation's highest court said the law officers involved in the same Montana case cannot be sued because it was not clearly established in 1993, when the raid occurred, that allowing such news media access was unlawful.
If the federal agents who conducted the Montana raid cannot be sued, logic seems to dictate that the camera crew they took with them also is immune.
The justices ruled last week that police violate people's privacy rights when they bring TV camera crews and other journalists into homes during arrests or searches. The court ruled unanimously that police who allow such access can be sued for violating the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
But the court also said that violation was not obvious in 1993. That rationale seemed certain to take CNN off the hook as well, so the impact of today's action appears to be minimal. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already had been told to restudy the Montana case, in which it said the officers involved in the 1993 raid could be sued.
While last week's decision made clear that police can be held financially responsible for such incidents in the future, it is still undecided whether news media organizations also can be held liable.
Today's unexplained Supreme Court order will not clarify that issue.
Only governmental action _ not acts by private citizens or companies _ can violate someone's constitutional rights such as the Fourth Amendment's privacy protections. But private citizens and companies can be deemed to have been governmental agents under certain circumstances.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that CNN should be considered a government agent because it engaged in a ``joint action'' _ one carried out ``for the mutual benefit of both the private interests of the media and the government officials' interest in publicity.''
CNN's appeal said that ruling ``will result in less public scrutiny of government functions'' and ``raises important First Amendment issues.'' The amendment protects freedom of the press.
``Journalists pursuing news for independent, professional purposes do not act under color of law, even when their newsgathering activities inherently involve making arrangements with government officials,'' the appeal argued.
Today's Supreme Court action leaves the 9th Circuit ruling intact as a legal precedent in nine Western states.
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service agents raided the 75,000-acre ranch of Paul and Erma Berger after obtaining a search warrant to look for evidence that they were poisoning wildlife.
The government had been told by informants that the Bergers were using pesticides to poison endangered species such as eagles to protect their central Montana ranch's livestock from predators.
As a result of the raid, Paul Berger was charged with violating federal laws that protect eagles. But a trial jury acquitted him of all charges except improper use of a pesticide, a misdemeanor.
After Berger's trial, CNN used portions of its footage of the search on the environmental news programs ``Earth Matters'' and ``Network Earth'' as part of its coverage of government efforts to protect endangered species.
The Bergers sued the government agents and CNN.
The case acted on today is CNN vs. Berger, 97-1914.