U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

FBI drops 'unconstitutional' subpoena for USA Today readership information

Incident Details

April 29, 2021

The Federal Bureau of Investigation subpoenaed Gannett Company, publisher of USA Today, on April 29, 2021, seeking information about people who had read a story the paper published about a shooting that left two FBI agents dead and three wounded. The FBI then withdrew the subpoena in early June.

The subpoena sought Internet Protocol addresses and "other potentially identifying information ‘for computers or other electronic devices’” used by readers to access a Feb. 2 USA Today story headlined: “FBI identifies 2 agents killed in Florida while serving warrant in crimes against children case.” The subpoena said the information “relates to a federal criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI” regarding its agents, who were shot during an attempt to serve a warrant in a child exploitation case.

In a U.S. District Court filing dated May 28, Gannett attorneys wrote, "in making this unconstitutional demand, the FBI has failed to demonstrate compliance with the United States Attorney General's regulations for subpoenas to the press.” Gannett asked the court to quash the subpoena.

A Politico story about the subpoena noted that “The accusation that the FBI defied the Justice Department’s guidelines for seeking news media records comes as the department is facing criticism from journalists, press freedom advocates and even President Joe Biden for a series of court orders obtained last year in leak investigations.”

On June 5, Keith Becker, deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal division, informed Gannett attorneys that the FBI was withdrawing the subpoena “because the child sexual exploitation offender subject of the investigation has at this time been identified via other means.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to an emailed request from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]