There are a few simple things to keep in mind in order to minimize your risk of a lawsuit or criminal prosecution when acquiring documents and other property for newsgathering purposes:
- Before you take possession of any documents or other personal property, you should get the express permission of the owner of that property or the person who has the right to possess it. Take the time to figure out who this actually is.
- Even if you only plan on borrowing documents for a short period of time in order to make copies (which you may be legally entitled to do), it is safer and more ethical to get permission first.
- Remember that personal property includes tangible items (e.g., photographs, papers, and computers) and intangible items (e.g., domain names and confidential business information).
- When you receive documents from a source, ask the source whether they are originals or copies. If they are originals, make copies and ask the source to return the originals. If they are copies, you might want to make duplicates of them, in case they are the only extant versions.
- If you receive a demand for the return of documents received from a source, you should consider making copies of the documents in question and returning the ones you received.
- Act with caution when dealing with a source who is a present or former government employee or someone with special access to sensitive government information. Be aware that, while it has not happened yet, the federal criminal laws are potentially broad enough to punish you for receipt and dissemination of this kind of information.