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Court rules professor’s notes not relevant in libel trial

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Confidentiality/Privilege         Feb 7, 2001    

Court rules professor’s notes not relevant in libel trial

  • Appellate court dodges issue of whether the state recognizes a reporter’s privilege for nonconfidential information.

A Washington state appeals court has ruled that interview notes of a university professor were not relevant to a defamation action brought in Arizona. The court reversed a trial court order to disclose the notes.

The Washington Court of Appeals ruled on Feb. 5 that the trial court judge improperly neglected to inspect the notes to determine their relevance. The appellate court then inspected the notes and found them irrelevant.

The defamation lawsuit arose after University of Washington professor Doug Underwood wrote a story for Columbia Journalism Review in January 1998 about competing corporate and journalistic interests at newspapers, which included a discussion of staff layoffs at The Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette. Reporters told Underwood that they had been told their reporting was interfering with the newspaper’s corporate interests, but an Underwood also quoted an editor, Steve Knickmeyer, who said that most of those laid off were “fat, lazy, incompetent and slow.”

The reporters sued in Arizona and arranged for an out-of-state subpoena to be served on Underwood in Washington. The motion to quash the subpoena was heard in Washington.

The trial court recognized a reporter’s privilege to prevent the subpoena for nonconfidential material, but ultimately decided it did not protect Underwood because his notes were relevant to the trial. As a result, the court ordered the professor to produce the notes. The trial court’s order in April 2000 was stayed pending the appeal.

In a friend-of-the-court brief to the Washington Court of Appeals, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged the court to not only recognize a journalist’s right to protect his or her nonconfidential material, but also apply it to the case. The court never reached the issue because it ruled only on the issue of whether the material was relevant evidence.

“After a careful review of the notes we conclude that they have no relevance to clarifying possible discrepancies in the testimony of Knickmeyer and Underwood,” the court wrote in its unpublished opinion. “The notes provide no additional information regarding the context in which Knickmeyer’s statements were made nor do they identify any specific persons or groups to whom Knickmeyer’s statements might refer.”

(Azula v. Underwood; Media Counsel: Bruce E.H. Johnson, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle) DB

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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