The Justice Dept. and a free press

The Obama administration stumbled badly in recent months as it repeatedly overstepped its authority in seeking information from news organizations. Prosecutors swept up phone records tracking calls by reporters and editors of the Associated Press, suggested that a Fox News reporter might be criminally prosecuted and continued their vigorous pursuit of information held by reporters in ferreting out alleged leaks. For that, the administration has been properly excoriated.

On Friday, however, Atty. Gen Eric H. Holder Jr. unveiled new guidelines to govern the department's behavior in cases involving news organizations. Those guidelines represent a historic step toward restraining the reach of government and affirming the rights of a free press. The administration got to this place only because of the outrage it brought on itself, but it got to the right place anyway.

Most important, the new guidelines ensure that news organizations, in almost all instances, are given notice when prosecutors seek records related to news gathering. Notice, which was not given to the Associated Press, allows organizations to discuss the request with the Justice Department and, if necessary, to contest it in court.

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