The attorney general's office, which is conducting a grand jury probe, rebuffed offers from the Intelligencer Journal of Lancaster to provide the information sought through less intrusive means or to search the computers in the newsroom, newspaper officials said.
Harold E. Miller Jr., the president and chief executive of parent Lancaster Newspapers Inc., said the ruling dismayed his reporters and could have a chilling effect on newsgathering.
"You get to the point where sources have confidence that we'll do the right thing and that our industry's protected. They'll talk to us," Miller said yesterday. "Without that confidence, we lose our ability to do our job."
Kevin Harley, a spokesman for state Attorney General Tom Corbett, declined to comment, citing grand jury rules.
The state Supreme Court, upholding a lower court ruling, last week rejected the paper's effort to quash the subpoena for the hard drives. The newspaper has not filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, in part because they were told the search would start the next morning, lawyer George C. Werner Jr. said.
Under terms of the lower court's ruling, the newspaper had given the hard drives conditionally to the attorney generals' office before the Supreme Court ruling.
The attorney general's office is investigating whether Lancaster Coroner G. Gary Kirchner gave reporters his password to a secure law-enforcement Web site, according to a brief filed in the case. Kirchner has denied doing so.
The attorney general's office has pledged to limit its search to usage related to the Web site in question, which is run by the Lancaster County-Wide Communications' Computer Assisted Dispatch Web site.
"Once you turn your hard drives over to a government entity and they have your computers, they essentially have access to the newsroom," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington.
"It's not like it was in the days when we were all typing out on manual typewriters. It's like going into the brain of the newsroom and dissecting it. I find that horrifying," she said.