Can Intent to Commit Journalism Turn a Good Samaritan Into a Felon?

I’m having trouble getting my mind around the legal case against Gizmodo editor Jason Chen, who purchased an iPhone prototype that was apparently mislaid in a bar, published photographs of it on the Gawker-affiliated blog, and then returned it to Apple when the company asked for its property back.

Here’s a thought experiment: Suppose you’re out walking and a neighbor says to you: “Look at this cool dog I found. I think I’m going to keep him.” You think you know who actually owns the dog–let’s call him Steve–and so you offer the neighbor some money to give it to you instead. You take a picture of the dog and make a flyer that says, “Steve, I think this is your dog.” When Steve sees your flyer and calls you, you give him his dog back.

Now, are you guilty of grand theft dog? I’m no lawyer, but I have to think the answer is obviously no–because you have no intention of keeping Steve’s dog.

The main difference between the dog situation and the iPhone case is that–even though in each case the stolen property is brought to the attention of and returned to the owner–the primary motivation for purchasing the property is not returning it, but publishing a news story about it. Does this journalistic intention really transform the action from a good deed into a potential felony?

It seems that what the 17 police agencies involved in this case are protecting is not Apple’s physical property but its secrets. The spectacle of cops seizing computers from a journalist’s home in defense of corporate secrecy is, as CJR‘s Ryan Chittum (4/26/10) suggests, more than a little creepy.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.