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Court quashes "60 Minutes" subpoenas in tobacco case

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Court quashes "60 Minutes" subpoenas in tobacco case03/11/96 NEW YORK--The Supreme Court in New York City, a state trial court,…

Court quashes “60 Minutes” subpoenas in tobacco case

03/11/96

NEW YORK–The Supreme Court in New York City, a state trial court, in late February quashed subpoenas served on CBS seeking outtakes from a “60 Minutes” interview with a former tobacco executive and depositions from eight CBS employees, including correspondents Mike Wallace and Morley Safer.

The Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. sued a former vice president of the company, Jeffrey Wigand, in late November in Louisville, Ky. for breach of contract, theft and fraud. The tobacco company alleges that Wigand breached his confidentiality agreement with B&W by disclosing proprietary information to “60 Minutes” and several newspapers.

In considering whether to enforce the subpoenas, the court applied a three-part test under the New York shield law, which affords qualified protection to newsgathering activities when a non- confidential source is involved.

Under the shield law, the tobacco company was required to demonstrate “clearly and specifically” that the information it wanted was highly material and relevant, critical or necessary to its claims against Wigand, and not available from any alternative source.

The court found that even assuming the outtakes and unpublished materials were relevant, B&W had made no showing that they were highly critical or necessary. In addition, any information that CBS had not broadcast could be obtained from Wigand, the court stated.

The court said it based its opinion on the “strong public interest in safeguarding a viable free press.”

“Attempts to obtain evidence from [the press] as nonparties would, if unrestrained, subject news organizations to enormous depletions of time and resources as well as seriously impede their ability to obtain materials from confidential sources,” the court stated.

In mid-November, CBS spiked its “60 Minutes” interview with Wigand, in which he was to appear in silhouette, out of concern that the network would be liable for tortious interference with the confidentiality agreement between Wigand and B&W, according to The Wall Street Journal. After much of Wigand’s grand jury testimony was published in the Journal in early February, CBS aired the “60 Minutes” interview.

B&W said it will appeal the court’s ruling. (Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. Wigand; Media Counsel: Suzanna Lowy and Anthony Bongiorno, New York)