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Subpoena served to five Seattle news organizations

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Court: Superior Court of the State of Washington, King County

Date Filed: June 29, 2020

Update: On Sept. 21, 2020, the Seattle Police Department informed the Washington Supreme Court that it was abandoning its efforts to force five Seattle news organizations to turn over unpublished photos and videos taken at protests.

Update: A judge ruled on July 23, 2020, that the five Seattle news organizations must comply with a subpoena requiring them to give the Seattle Police Department unpublished photos and video from a May 30 protest. In August, however, the Washington Supreme Court granted an emergency stay of the judge’s decision until it has a chance to decide the appeal on the merits.

Background: During protests in Seattle on May 30, 2020, unknown individuals torched police cars and stole guns from the vehicles. To help identify the suspects, police issued a subpoena compelling five news organizations to turn over all unedited footage and photographs taken in a several block radius over a 90-minute period during the protest.

The news organizations challenged the warrants in Washington state’s King County Superior Court.

Our Position: The Superior Court should quash the subpoena because it is unconstitutional, prohibited by the state shield law, and puts journalists at risk.

  • Compelling journalists to share materials acquired from newsgathering violates the Washington shield law and the First Amendment
  • Requiring members of the news media to assist law enforcement officers in an ongoing investigation increases the likelihood that members of the public will perceive the press as an extension of law enforcement, rather than as a neutral observer.

Quote: “Enforcement of the Subpoena could mislead the public into perceiving reporters at protests as a mere arm of law enforcement, thus eroding public trust in the news media and increasing the already-significant risk of physical harm that journalists face when covering protests.”

Related: In 2018, the Reporters Committee and 19 news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting reporter Jamie Kalven’s motion to quash a subpoena requiring him to testify about his sources in a case in which three Chicago police officers faced charges for allegedly conspiring to obstruct justice in the investigation of fellow a former officer who shot and killed a Black teenager in 2014.

In 2017, the Reporters Committee and 48 news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting New York Times reporter Frances Robles’ attempt to quash a subpoena seeking unpublished notes and testimony regarding an interview she conducted with a suspect in a murder case.

In 2017, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging a federal district court to quash a subpoena requiring journalist John Sepulvado to testify about his interviews with participants in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. The brief stressed the importance of recognizing a reporter’s privilege and argued that compelled testimony compromises the independence of the news media.

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