'60 Minutes' tapes not highly relevant to suit against Avis

Feature | December 1, 1997

'60 Minutes' tapes not highly relevant to suit against Avis

12/01/97

NEW YORK--In late October a federal District Court in Manhattan refused to enforce a subpoena ordering CBS to turn over outtakes from a "60 Minutes" story about Avis Rent A Car Systems.

The car rental company sought CBS videotape shot in connection with a March 9, 1997, "60 Minutes" story called "Car for Rent?" The story reported on the troubles some black customers experienced while trying to rent cars from Avis franchises in North and South Carolina. The subpoena sought all videotapes and other material used in preparation of the story, including portions of interviews that were never broadcast.

Judge John Keenan found that the company failed to establish that the outtakes contained anything highly material and relevant to its case. Instead, Keenan wrote, the suggestion that the outtakes would reveal inappropriate remarks by the customers was nothing more than a "hunch." Such "unsupported speculation" could not overcome the reporters privilege, he wrote.

Avis sought the outtakes in connection with a race discrimination suit filed against it in a federal District Court in Raleigh, N.C., by a group of black customers who claim the company was more reluctant to rent cars to them than it was to rent cars to white customers. The company contended that the outtakes were critical to its attempt to prove that the customers and their attorneys had made improper statements to the press. It also alleged that CBS could not assert a qualified reporters privilege against disclosing the tapes because the interviews had been conducted in the presence of persons other than the customers and the interviewer, and thus any privilege had been waived.

Keenan disagreed with both of Avis's arguments, and rejected Avis's claim that CBS reporters had waived the privilege by conducting the interviews in front of third persons.

Although confidentiality might be compromised by the presence of another person, the judge wrote, the privilege serves other purposes besides protecting secret sources.

According to the court, the privilege also protects "the privacy of editorial processes, the independence of the press and the need to allow the press to publish freely on topics of public interest without harassment and scrutiny by litigants seeking to conduct 'fishing expeditions' into nonbroadcast materials in the hope that some relevant information may turn up." (Pugh v. Avis Rent A Car System, Inc.; Media Counsel: Suzanne Lowy, New York)