A freelance photographer from Indiana is suing the House Jan. 6 committee, arguing that a subpoena the panel issued for her telephone records violates the First Amendment.
Amy Harris, who was on the Capitol grounds during the riot and whose photos have appeared in news outlets such as CNN, Rolling Stone and POLITICO, filed the suit in federal court in Washington on Wednesday afternoon.
Documents attached to the suit show that last month the House panel subpoenaed Harris’ cell phone provider, Verizon Wireless, for details on calls and texts she made or received during a three-month period ending Jan. 31. The cell phone company said it planned to comply with the subpoena unless Harris took legal action by Wednesday to block it.
“The subpoena violates the core protections afforded to journalists pursuant to the First Amendment,” the court complaint says.
The subpoena appears to have targeted Harris’ phone number and not to seek the content of her texts or emails. It is unclear whether investigators knew the number belonged to the photojournalist before they sought the call and text-related records, but leaders of the probe have emphasized that they seek such records based on phone numbers, not identities.
A spokesperson for the House panel did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, the fourth such suit filed in recent days.
Harris’ suit says that before the storming of the Capitol, she was in regular contact with leaders of the Proud Boys, a right-wing group that took a leading role in the march on the Capitol. The group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested days before the storming of the Capitol. Many of the group’s other members and affiliates are accused in one of the major conspiracy cases that federal prosecutors have filed over the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Harris’ suit says she had been photographing the Proud Boys with their consent since December 2020.
“During the time frame of the Verizon Subpoena, Harris was a journalist acting in a news gathering and news disseminating capacity. She was documenting Tarrio and the Proud Boys and used her phone to communicate with confidential and nonconfidential sources in support of that story,” the suit says. “Therefore, the telephone records sought by the House Select Committee contain information sufficient to reveal the identities of Harris’ confidential sources and are absolutely protected.”
In the suit, Harris reports that she lost her phone during the violence and chaos that day and that she later recovered it after it was left at a hotel desk by a Proud Boys member.
Harris’ work has been published in a wide variety of media outlets. In addition, she has been credentialed by the New York Police Department and is a member of the National Press Photographers’ Association, according to documents attached to her suit.
That photojournalists’ group issued a statement Wednesday evening asking the House committee to withdraw the subpoena for Harris’ records.
“While the NPPA greatly appreciates the crucial mission of the House Select Committee to investigate the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, we believe it is misguided for members to subpoena the phone records of a visual journalist who risked her health and safety to report on and photograph protests on both sides of the political spectrum,” said Akili-Casundria Ramsess, NPPA executive director. “Such actions have a chilling effect upon the core First Amendment values critical to the democratic principles the Committee was established to protect and we hope they will seriously reconsider their position in this matter.”
The new suit is the latest of at least four such legal actions filed against the House panel in recent days by individuals claiming the committee’s probe has intruded on their rights or is proceeding without proper legal authority.
Last week, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows sued the panel, arguing that the investigative committee’s demands for his files and cell phone records violate his privacy as well as a claim of executive privilege by former President Donald Trump.
On Monday, four people involved in organizing a rally Trump attended on Jan. 6 filed suit to block subpoenas for their cell phone records.
And on Tuesday, a lawyer who advised Trump on a strategy to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, John Eastman, filed a suit to deny the panel access to his cell phone records. He has refused to testify to the committee, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Harris’ suit contends there is hypocrisy on the part of the chair of the House panel, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), noting that as recently as Monday he complained publicly about intrusive investigative tactics toward journalists by executive branch agencies.
Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.