Court cautions against subpoenas of reporters
FLORIDA–In mid-December a trial court in Ft. Lauderdale quashed a third-party subpoena against a local newspaper and one of its reporters, finding that the reporter’s testimony was irrelevant to the underlying suit.
In his order quashing the subpoena, Judge John Miller added that reporters needed some degree of protection from the “annoyance and harassment” of subpoenas from parties involved in civil suits. The Florida Supreme Court is currently considering a case that would limit the reporter’s privilege to situations involving confidential sources.
The court’s order quashed a subpoena served by Coastline Business Corporation on the Sun-Sentinel and sports reporter Jason Cole. Coastline was sued by former Miami Dolphin Gene Atkins and his wife over a construction contract for a new home. Atkins had claimed that Coastline’s failure to perform the contract had upset him enough to affect his football skills, leading to Atkins’ dismissal from the team. Coastline sought Cole’s testimony about Atkins’ dismissal, and specifically about a 1995 locker room altercation involving the former football player and the reporter.
Noting that Cole knew nothing about the contract, Miller concluded that the testimony sought in the subpoena was irrelevant to the Atkins’ lawsuit. Thus, he concluded, “the reasons given for wanting to depose Cole fall woefully short of the requirements for conducting discovery.”
Miller also added a note of caution about deposing members of the media, even where no reporter’s privilege was asserted.
“Without some level of reasonable protection,” Miller wrote, “the risk is run that reporters become surrogate investigators for civil litigants, and can then be forced to testify under oath about the very thing they do for a living. … Plain and simple, newsgathering is the essential precondition of the dissemination of public information. When this process is subverted for the purpose of fostering private litigation, the result has a chilling effect on the function of a free press under the First Amendment.” (Coastline Building Corporation v. Atkins; Media Counsel: John Hargrove, Ft. Lauderdale)