TMZ empress Harvey Levin is a hard man for people to like. He’s made a sport out of airing celebrity dirty laundry, and celebrities have a lot of friends (and publicists and agents and managers), and those friends live in the media world, which protect their greatest assets: celebrities. So how did Levin — the muscled gay who walks around TMZ’s headquarters-slash-television-set drinking protein shakes — manage to shore up so much sympathy this week? By having the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies score his phone records as part of “police work.”
Having built an empire that stalks Adam Lambert, Levin isn’t even loved by his own readers. (Queerty staffers know something about that.) But when LA sheriffs started messing with Levin’s private phone records as part of an investigation into finding the leaker of Mel Gibson’s arrest report (hello 2006!), everyone started crying “censorship!” and “freedom of speech!” and other $10 college phrases. LAT:
Several [media law experts and journalism groups] said they believed that sheriff’s investigators violated state and federal law when they obtained a search warrant for the records of TMZ founder Harvey Levin as they tried to identify who gave him details about Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade during a 2006 drunk-driving arrest.
“That’s illegal,” said Lucy Dalglish, an attorney and executive director of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Most law enforcement agencies know it’s illegal . . . or have a hard time getting a judge signing off on it.”
Dalglish and others said such actions threatened the independence of the press and its role as the watchdog of government.
“You can’t have a government agency that is supposed to be monitored by the press investigating the press to find out where it got its stories,” said attorney Terry Francke, an expert on media law.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said his department consulted a prosecutor before seeking the search warrant. He noted that a judge approved the warrant.
“What we did we believe was legal,” he said.
[...] Legal experts said the California Constitution protects journalists from being forced to reveal their sources.
State law, they said, also bars judges from issuing search warrants for unpublished information that is gathered by reporters.
District attorney’s office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said a sheriff’s official overseeing the investigation told her office that the prosecutor assigned to the leak case was the same lawyer investigators consulted before obtaining the warrant.
Honestly, we’re surprised it took this long for the police to target Levin. This man — combined with some petty cash and all too willing clerks at the police station — regularly provide Levin with arrest records, hush hush investigation details, and, uh, photos of Rihanna’s battered face. Why isn’t LAPD making random traffic stops of Levin? Busting into his home on on trumped up domestic abuse charges with boyfriend Dr. Andy Mauer? Pulling Levin’s phone records certainly sounds illegal in this case, which is a shame when there are plenty of other ways the cops can torment TMZ’s kingpin.