U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Independent journalist ordered to turn over phone, laptop in defamation case

Incident Details

Date of Incident
August 26, 2021

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A portion of an Aug. 26, 2023, court decision ordering independent journalist and blogger Kevin Brookman to submit his cellphone and computer to forensic examination in order to identify anonymous commenters on his blog, We the People — Hartford.

August 26, 2021

Independent journalist and blogger Kevin Brookman was ordered on Aug. 26, 2021, to surrender his phone and laptop for forensic examination in connection with defamation claims made by a police officer in Hartford, Connecticut.

Brookman writes and publishes We the People — Hartford, an investigative news blog focused on local government and public safety. According to court filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a series of anonymous comments were posted to the site between August and October 2019 that then-Lieutenant Vincent Benvenuto of the Hartford Police Department alleged had defamed him.

Benvenuto, who has since been promoted to captain, filed a discovery petition against Brookman in November 2019, requesting that the court order the journalist to turn over identifying information about the anonymous commenters so Benvenuto could pursue defamation cases against them.

Benvenuto also asserted that the commenters were fellow police officers who made the posts in violation of the department’s social media guidelines.

Brookman maintains that not only does he not have access to the requested information but that he should be protected from such an order by the state’s reporter shield law. His court filings cite news outlets ranging from the Hartford Courant and The Hartford News to local broadcast stations WFSB and WVIT that have credited Brookman in their stories for breaking news on his blog.

Superior Court Judge Cesar Noble ruled, however, that he does not qualify as a journalist as blogs are not explicitly mentioned in the statute’s definition of news media.

Connecticut state law defines the news media as:

“Any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book publisher, news agency, wire service, radio or television station or network, cable or satellite or other transmission system or carrier, or channel or programming service for such station, network, system or carrier, or audio or audiovisual production company that disseminates information to the public, whether by print, broadcast, photographic, mechanical, electronic or any other means or medium.”

Brookman told the Tracker that while he doesn’t consider himself a journalist in the same way as someone who reports for a living, he believes his work is journalistic in nature.

“By the definition, I am a journalist because I'm providing news content,” Brookman said. “It’s not something I ever intended to be, but by doing what I do I think it has become that.”

As part of the August order, Brookman was required to turn over his equipment to Benvenuto’s digital forensics expert, who said that only the data stored on the devices, as well as the journalist’s communications, will aid in identifying the commenters.

“While a forensic analysis of the defendant’s data is unlikely to yield an IP address it might contain identifiers in emails and texts that may be used to identify identical key words relative to the comments,” Noble wrote in his decision.

Mario Cerame, an attorney representing Brookman, told the Tracker that the forensic analysis could not only jeopardize the anonymity of the commenters but potentially expose the journalist’s confidential sources and personal communications.

“It’s super sweeping, because you’re going through all of his email and communications,” Cerame said. “On the face of it, it seems crazy town to force a reporter or journalist to give over his laptop and cellphone for forensic review on the orders of a police lieutenant.”

Brookman filed a motion asking Noble to reconsider his decision, and when Noble denied that motion the journalist filed an appeal with the state appellate court. The case was transferred to the Connecticut Supreme Court in April 2022, which heard arguments on Oct. 19, 2023.

Cerame told the Tracker that what is at stake in the case is not only a potential narrowing of the shield law to the exclusion of modern digital journalists but also an exposure of anonymous speakers that could chill future whistleblowers.

“If they are able to uncover the identities of these cops, I think fewer people will be willing to come forward to journalists or to write criticisms of public figure plaintiffs like this,” Cerame said. “All [Benvenuto and his attorneys] really want is to scare people from talking.”

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