Important Legal Questions Arise From Gizmodo iPhone Fiasco

The potentially illicit procurement and subsequent return to its owner of an Apple iPhone by staff members of Gawker Media gadget blog Gizmodo is now more than a fun exercise in sensationalist meta-journalism or a case study in an Internet audience’s insatiable hunger for news about Apple’s consumer products. Following a raid by California police of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s domicile, questions about Gawker Media’s reportorial practices and the the status of its journalists have taken on legal significance.

Gizmodo had paid for the iPhone, which had been left at a bar by an Apple employee. The police raided Chen’s home and seized his computers, believing they were used in the commission of a felony.

What had been a gleeful nose-thumbing at Apple’s notoriously tight security/PR machine by Gawker publisher Nick Denton has taken on more significant implications.

In a letter to the police, Gawker Media COO Gaby Darbyshire argued that Chen is a journalist and therefore protected under California journalism shield law. The law protects journalists from search under warrants. Instead, a subpoena is required. The cops raided Chen’s home with a warrant.

So now the question of whether the police acted appropriately hinges on two question. One seems banal in 2010 (at least to your admittedly biased editor): Are bloggers journalists? The other may be thornier: In paying for the iPhone, or the story, or some combination of the two, did Chen or anyone else at Gawker Media commit a crime?

For more on this story, check out The Atlantic Wire’s roundup of the legal issues, Bloggasm’s consultation with several prominent editors on whether Chen is a journalist, and “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams’ blog post regarding the matter.