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This module begins with a walkthrough of a few examples of legal requests that have affected news organizations' communications, with emphasis on the underlying authorities and how they might apply more broadly. In the latter half of the lecture, instructors may ask students to investigate a transparency report for a company of their choice, using a suggested list. Following additional lecture time it closes out with time to discuss the implications of these authorities on journalistic practice.

Note: If your program already offers a course on journalism and the law, consider looping in the instructor(s) who teach these courses for opportunities to guest lecture. Depending on your situation, it might be easiest to guest lecture in their class, or yours.


Threat modeling

Estimated time

50-55 minutes


  • Upon successful completion of this lesson, students will be able to tell whether a service provider can be compelled to share their user data.
  • Students will be able to assess the implications for the safety of news organizations' communications and work products.
  • Students will be able to identify techniques for storing electronic communications and documents while minimizing privacy and security risks.

Why this matters

The two main ways data concerning sources, colleagues, or oneself can be compromised are through hacking and legal requests. It's therefore important to know when a service provider is vulnerable to legal requests, and the types of data that may be divulged.


(Before class)

(Optional: After class) Read a warrant, describing a court request to Google for user data concerning an accused source for a New York Times publication concerning the Iranian nuclear program. Identify the data types requested, and which seem most applicable to the investigation, which seem disconnected, and why: Search and seizure warrant

Sample slides

Legal requests in the U.S. (Google Slides)


Have students go to Access Now's Transparency Reporting Index and pick a company. Ask students to report back the number of warrants issued by that company last year.

Questions for discussion

  • What's the difference between a subpoena and a warrant?
  • How do you think companies could realistically push back against these kinds of requests?
  • What does this mean for journalists' ability to communicate safely?
  • What are some realistic ways to maintain confidentiality over your conversations and work products?

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