Jan 6, 2015 · 1 minute

Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News reporter who alleges that the government hacked into her computers while she was reporting on Benghazi and the Affordable Care Act, is suing the government for $35 million in damages resulting from the suspected hacking.

The lawsuit was filed against the United States Department of Justice, the US Postal Service, and the US government in general. Attkisson says dealing with the alleged hack resulted in "damage to personal property, both real and tangible, workplace harassment and intimidation, fear, stress, embarrassment, expense, inconvenience, and anxiety."

It would be scandalous for the government to hack into the computers (and apparently the television sets) of a reporter investigating controversial subjects. There's only one problem: many people have a hard time believing Attkisson was ever actually hacked.

Attkisson's critics say much of the evidence she cites to support her theory about being hacked can be explained away by common technical errors: her television set's flickering could be caused by a malfunctioning cable box; a Word document which automatically deleted characters when she stopped typing could've been caused by a broken keyboard.

Perhaps those skeptics are wrong, and Attkisson really was the target of government surveillance because of her reporting. Or maybe her problems really were caused by simple technical errors with which millions of people must deal seemingly every day.

The former possibility would be another example of the Obama administration's war on the press, which has seen the administration described as the worst since Nixon as far as press freedoms are concerned, and would certainly justify increased scrutiny. The latter would discredit Attkisson and could cause problems for reporters who really were snooped on.

A functioning, independent press is the foundation for a just society. Allegations that the government is surveilling, intimidating, or badgering journalists should be taken seriously by anyone who wants to know what their government is doing in their names.

Those allegations are often taken seriously, but such a high-profile lawsuit seeking so much in damages could easily give the government all it needs to say other journalists who suspect they're being surveilled are simply imagining things. That wouldn't just be a problem for the press -- it would also create issues for the society it helps to inform.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]