Court: Minnesota Court of Appeals
Date Filed: Nov. 3, 2023
Background: In 2021, the pipeline company Energy Transfer issued subpoenas to Unicorn Riot, a Minnesota-based nonprofit news organization, and one of its journalists seeking unpublished work materials related to the outlet’s coverage of the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. The subpoenas, filed with a Minnesota state court as part of ongoing litigation stemming from pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, demanded that non-party Unicorn Riot and reporter Niko Georgiades hand over emails, audio and video recordings, financial documents, and other records.
The Minnesota district court affirmed that the Minnesota Shield Law applied to non-traditional news organizations such as Unicorn Riot and denied Energy Transfer’s motion to compel the disclosure. However, it ordered Unicorn Riot to create what’s known as a “privilege log,” a detailed list of all materials that could fall under the subpoena and explain why each piece should be privileged under the Minnesota Shield Law. Both sides appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Our Position: The appeals court should affirm the district court’s application of the state shield law to Unicorn Riot and vacate the portion of the district court’s order requiring the news outlet to produce a privilege log.
- The Minnesota Shield Law was enacted to broadly protect newsgathering and the reporting process, and provides absolute protection in subpoena and other civil matters excepting those cases for defamation.
- The Minnesota Shield Law applies to non-traditional news organizations and protects Unicorn Riot’s unpublished work product from compelled disclosure.
- The qualified reporter’s privilege under the First Amendment also applies.
- Unicorn Riot should not have been ordered to produce a privilege log.
Quote: “Attempts by civil litigants to rifle through the notebooks and newsrooms of third-party journalists and news organizations can, among other things, result in costly and time-consuming legal battles that divert journalists’ attention and resources away from reporting, and foster distrust of the news media among potential sources — who may be less willing to speak to journalists.”