State prosecutors seized four computers from a newsroom as part of a grand jury probe into whether a county coroner gave reporters his password to a secure law enforcement Web site, the newspaper said Wednesday.
The Intelligencer Journal of Lancaster had offered to provide the information sought through less intrusive means or to search the computers in the newsroom, newspaper officials said. But prosecutors won a court battle to take the hard drives.
Harold E. Miller Jr., the president and chief executive of parent Lancaster Newspapers Inc., said the ruling dismayed his reporters and could have a chilling effect on newsgathering.
“You get to the point where sources have confidence that we’ll do the right thing and that our industry’s protected. They’ll talk to us,” Miller said. “Without that confidence, we lose our ability to do our job.”
Kevin Harley, a spokesman for state Attorney General Tom Corbett, declined comment, citing grand jury rules.
Prosecutors have pledged to limit their search to items related to the Lancaster County-Wide Communications’ Computer Assisted Dispatch Web site, which contains details about criminal investigations.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, decried the seizure.
“Once you turn your hard drives over to a government entity and they have your computers, they essentially have access to the newsroom,” she said. “It’s not like it was in the days when we were all typing out on manual typewriters. It’s like going into the brain of the newsroom and dissecting it. I find that horrifying.”
Investigators believe reporters used information from the Web site to write stories or help them ask specific questions.
Lancaster Coroner G. Gary Kirchner has denied giving reporters access to the Web site. No criminal charges have been filed in the case.