Harvey Levin, managing editor of celebrity news television show and website TMZ, told the Radio & Television News Association of Southern California in a speech last night that the Sheriff's Department's seizure and use of his phone records is “illegal” and that he's pursuing legal avenues with a team of lawyers.

Levin learned that the department had scoured TMZ's phone records in a Los Angeles Times report earlier this month.

It outlined investigators' efforts to get to the bottom of a leak in the 2006 drunk-driving arrest of Mel Gibson. While the Sheriff's Department declared there was no incident in the arrest, TMZ learned that the actor had become combative and issued antisemitic profanities. What's worse, the news outlet reported that the arresting deputy was ordered to downplay Gibson's antics on his official report.

Levin asked the Radio & Television News Association's members to support him in his fight against the department. While some in the journalism community would paint TMZ as a different animal — it often depends on tips from people who are not named and whose relationships and motives are not made clear — Levin argued that TMZ was worthy of the same protections afforded journalism organizations in the United States because it has broken hundreds if not thousands of stories that have been followed by the most upstanding of newspapers and outlets.

The Sheriff's Department's action “breaks federal law, it breaks state law,” Levin is widely quoted as telling the association. “This is like Chinatown. It's disgusting they would do something like this. How do you protect sources? It goes to the core of freedom of the press.”

“We've met with lawyers and are charting our course of action,” he said. “This is not going to go away.”

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