As you may recall, back in 2013, soon after the Snowden revelations, the UK detained David Miranda
at Heathrow Airport and took a bunch of his electronics, as he was flying through (from Germany on his way back home to Brazil). Miranda is Glenn Greenwald's partner, and the claim by the UK was that in Berlin he had picked up copies of Snowden documents. The UK claimed that the detention was okay under Schedule 7
of the Terrorism Act, which allows for detaining terrorists
, not journalists. But the UK said that it was okay, because it classified publishing Snowden documents as an act of terrorism
Miranda sued in the UK, arguing that his rights were violated. Almost two years ago, a court ruled that the detention was lawful
. Miranda appealed, and in an important ruling
this morning, the appeals court said that, while Miranda's detention may have been lawful, Schedule 7 is incompatible with human rights
, with regards to protecting journalists, and could be subject to abuse (even if it says that Miranda's detention wasn't necessarily abusive). The court more or less ruled that the authorities acted within reason, given the existing law, but a specific part of the law, regarding how it handles journalists, was a problem with regards to the guarantees for a free press.
Reading through the full 36-page ruling is worthwhile. The ruling is a victory for those concerned about abuses against journalists under the Terrorism Act -- but only a fairly narrow one. For example, the court does
note that publication can
"amount to an act of terrorism" if the publication "endangers a person's life" and the person publishing "intends it to have that effect." I can understand why someone might make that argument, but it still seems troubling to argue that any form of expression alone is an "act of terrorism."
Where the court disagrees
with the government's claims, is in noting that Schedule 7 conflicts with Article 10
of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression (not nearly as broadly as the US's First Amendment, but at least somewhat), because it could be read to force journalists to give up sources, potentially harming a free and open press:
The central concern is that disclosure of journalistic material (whether or not it involves the identification of a journalist’s source) undermines the confidentiality that is inherent in such material and which is necessary to avoid the chilling effect of disclosure and to protect article 10 rights. If journalists and their sources can have no expectation of confidentiality, they may decide against providing information on sensitive matters of public interest. That is why the confidentiality of such information is so important. It is, therefore, of little or no relevance that the Schedule 7 powers may only be exercised in a confined geographical area or that a person may not be detained for longer than nine hours. I accept that the fact that the powers must be exercised rationally, proportionately and in good faith provides a degree of protection. But the only safeguard against the powers not being so exercised is the possibility of judicial review proceedings. In my view, the possibility of such proceedings provides little protection against the damage that is done if journalistic material is disclosed and used in circumstances where this should not happen. An important rationale for the principle of legal certainty that underpins the concept of “prescribed by law” is that there should be adequate safeguards against arbitrary decision-making. Unlike the position in relation to article 5 and 8, the possibility of judicial review proceedings to challenge the rationality, proportionality and good faith of a decision to interfere with freedom of expression in cases involving journalistic material cases does not afford an adequate safeguard.
Given that, the court rules that Schedule 7 is currently "incompatible" with article 10, and thus the UK Parliament needs to change the law to fix that problem. The court does point out that there may be some easy fixes:
The most obvious safeguard would be some form of judicial or other independent and impartial scrutiny conducted in such a way as to protect the confidentiality in the material.
So it appears that the UK could fix this deficiency pretty easily -- but in a way that would better protect journalists. I recognize that there are a number of statements and press releases that are excited about this ruling, but it does appear to be a bit of an overstatement. Yes, finding problems with Schedule 7, especially as it relates to journalists, is a big deal. But the concerns seem to be pretty narrowly focused, and open to a rather quick fix by the UK Parliament. A stronger ruling would have been better, but at least the court recognized some
problems with the current setup of the law with respect to press freedoms.
As for what happens next? The UK could challenge the ruling at a higher level. Or it could change the law, as suggested by the court. Or it could ignore the ruling, which would lead to a European challenge. So this isn't necessarily over yet....