Tim Burke is a journalist. His prosecution tries to criminalize journalism

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Tim Burke, wearing a baseball cap and sweatshirt, sits in front of computer screens displaying images

Breaking major news — as Tim Burke did when he uncovered an antisemitic rant by Ye, formerly Kanye West, on Tucker Carlson’s TV show — sure sounds a whole lot like journalism.

Photo courtesy of Tim Burke.

Tim Burke will be arraigned soon on troubling charges under federal computer hacking and wiretapping laws, based on his online newsgathering.

Burke is being prosecuted for finding and publicizing unaired footage of an antisemitic rant by Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, on Tucker Carlson’s TV show. That tirade, and Ye’s continuing antisemitism, have been national news ever since.

Breaking major news sure sounds a whole lot like journalism. That’s why more than 50 rights organizations and broadcasters sounded the alarm over Burke’s Computer Fraud and Abuse Act case in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland last year.

But not everyone agrees. Certainly not at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Writing in Slate, Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) Advocacy Director Seth Stern raises concerns that DOJ prosecutors may have labeled Burke as a “former” journalist in court filings to avoid judicial scrutiny of whether their investigation complied with the First Amendment, federal law, and their own policies.

Stern writes:

Reporters are sure to self-censor if they can’t be sure what kinds of journalists and what kinds of journalism the DOJ believes the First Amendment protects. The same way the Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange chill national security reporting, the CFAA charges against Burke chill digital journalism.

Read the entire Slate column here.

Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay Times also refers to Burke as a “former journalist” in its reporting. Last week, its editor Mark Katches attempted to explain the Times’ thinking. In a guest column in the Times, Stern and Florida First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Bobby Block respond.

Stern and Block write that Burke easily satisfies a “functional definition of who is a journalist” — based on whether the person was performing an act of journalism — when he broke the story of Ye’s edited interview on Carlson’s show.

Further, Stern and Block explain:

Press freedom is under attack, especially in Florida, and ambiguous computer crime laws like those Burke is charged under are a dangerous weapon in prosecutors’ arsenals. Katches may think he’s helping preserve the integrity of his profession but, instead, his column handed a gift to those seeking to criminalize newsgathering while the media is most vulnerable.

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