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RCFP supports Bakersfield Californian’s subpoena fight

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

Updates: On May 24, 2023, the trial court judge denied The Bakersfield Californian’s motion to quash the subpoena, and held the news outlet in contempt of court. After The Californian appealed to the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Division, the Reporters Committee, joined by 22 media organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on July 12, 2023, in support of the news outlet, arguing that California’s shield law protects journalistic work product from compelled disclosure. On Nov. 7, 2023, the appeals court issued an opinion holding that the lower court correctly denied The Bakersfield Californian’s motion to quash the subpoena, and ordering the news outlet to turn over the unpublished reporting materials. As The Bakersfield Californian reported, the news outlet produced its reporters’s notes on Nov. 15, 2023, and published them on its website. On Jan. 12, 2024, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 23 media organizations filed a letter in support of The Bakersfield Californian’s request for depublication of the opinion of the Fifth Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal, arguing that it “could have far-reaching consequences for reporting and dam the free flow of information to Californians about matters of the utmost public concern.” On Feb. 21, 2024, the appeals court denied The Bakersfield Californian’s request for depublication.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is urging a California court to grant The Bakersfield Californian’s motion to quash a subpoena that seeks the disclosure of reporting materials related to a jailhouse interview one of its journalists conducted with a man charged with murder.

The subpoena was filed by the public defender representing Robert Roberts, one of two men charged in the shooting death of a state prison counselor. It specifically seeks the recording of reporter Ishani Desai’s jailhouse interview with Sebastian Parra, the other man charged in the murder. The subpoena also seeks notes from the interview, as well as the list of questions Desai asked Parra.

In a May 8 letter in support of The Bakersfield Californian’s motion to quash the subpoena, Reporters Committee attorneys argue that compelling the disclosure of the journalist’s reporting materials “would chill newsgathering and thereby deprive the public of key information about the criminal justice system.”

The Reporters Committee’s letter to Superior Court Judge Elizabet Rodriguez highlights California’s shield law, which protects journalists from efforts to access their work product. It also emphasizes the serious consequences of forcing reporters to disclose their reporting materials.

“The more closely journalists and news organizations are associated with the compelled disclosure of their work product and communications with sources at the behest of the government or third-party litigants, the less access journalists will have to people, places, and events that urgently call for press coverage,” the letter states. “Similarly, when the fruits of newsgathering are coopted for government or third-party litigants’ agendas, public trust in the news media’s independence suffers.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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