By now youve probably seen the newspaper headlines claiming that a federal judge has "struck down an important surveillance provision of the antiterrorism legislation known as the USA Patriot Act." But over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr demonstrates that this really isnt so. What was struck down was a portion of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, but the New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press have all gone out of their way to make it appear as though this were some sort of setback for the administration.
Later on, Kerr found out the real source that reporters were using for this story: a press release from the ACLU, breathlessly proclaiming that the ruling "is the first to strike down any of the vast new surveillance powers authorized by the Patriot Act." But one cant help but sympathize with the plight of legal reporters:
I can understand the difficulties that long and complicated legal opinions raise for many reporters. Imagine you are a reporter who covers legal issues and terrorism. Its late on a Wednesday afternoon, and a court hands down a 122-page legal opinion. You have just a few hours to write a story on it. The Justice Department declines comment, so thats no help. But then the ACLU gives you a nice and easy-to-understand press release that tells you what the opinion does, what it means, and offers a few great soundbites. With a deadline just a few hours away, what are you going to do — wade through 122 pages of hypertechnical legalese yourself, or base your story at least in large part on the ACLUs press release?
Of course, it helps if the ACLUs agenda fits your preordained vision of what the world should be like.