The founder of a Hollywood gossip website has launched a landmark legal battle against the Los Angeles police after discovering that officers accessed his private telephone records in a bid to discover how information about Mel Gibson's drink-driving arrest was made public.
Harvey Levin, the creator of TMZ.com, believes a search warrant designed to help the Sheriff's deputies identify which police sources leaked information to his organisation violated important state and federal laws protecting free speech and the independence of the press.
He claims to have been the victim of "abuse" by a department that felt embarassed by TMZ's "scoop" about Gibson's famously profane and anti-Semitic comments to officers who had arrested him in Malibu in 2006, and that was looking to exact revenge.
Officers who stopped the actor on 28 July 2006 were ordered by superiors to suppress an initial report of the arrest, which revealed how Gibson had exclaimed, "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world".
However the report was swiftly leaked to TMZ, causing public outrage at both Gibson and the police, for allegedly giving him special treatment. "We are going to stand up not just for us but because it is right thing to do," Mr Levin declared in a speech to industry executives this week. "It is outrageous what law enforcement has done here. I can only imagine the Pandora's Box this is going to open up to find out what else has happened."
Mr Levin says he was never informed that the judge had given officers permission to obtain a transcript of his home phone records, and only learned of the intrusion when he read about it in the Los Angeles Times.
"It is a fight about the First Amendment, a fight about democracy," he added. "It's a fight about the freedom of the press... a fight about the abuse in law enforcement." The decision to pursue legal action against the authorities has already turned Mr Levin into an unlikely hero of the free speech movement.
"That's illegal," was how Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press described the decision to reveal his phone records. "Most law enforcement agencies know it's illegal... or have a hard time getting a judge signing off on it."
Terry Francke, an expert on media law, added that California's constitution is supposed to protect journalists from having to identify their sources. "You can't have a government agency that is supposed to be monitored by the press investigating the press to find out where it has been getting its stories."
Mr Levin has not yet announced what form his legal action will take. But it will certainly lend him gravitas at odds with the tone of his remarkably successful website, which is the world's third most-visited celebrity news source, a knockabout mixture of paparazzi videos, legal documents and gossip items about local celebrities. Mr Levin also stars in a fly-on-the-wall TV show filmed daily at TMZ's offices in Hollywood.Reuse content