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Food Lion subpoenas for journalists' records quashed

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Food Lion subpoenas for journalists' records quashed09/23/96 NORTH CAROLINA--The Food Lion supermarket chain is prohibited from issuing subpoenas to ABC…

Food Lion subpoenas for journalists’ records quashed


NORTH CAROLINA–The Food Lion supermarket chain is prohibited from issuing subpoenas to ABC news sources because the subpoenas clearly infringe ABC’s First Amendment right to protect confidential sources, a federal District Court in Greensboro ruled in early September.

The court granted ABC’s motion for a protective order to halt Food Lion from issuing subpoenas to hotels, letter-carrier services, and telecommunication companies, seeking documentation of all communications to and from ABC journalists. The court ordered Food Lion to immediately withdraw all subpoenas in any jurisdiction in which they have been served.

Although the information was requested from third parties and not directly from ABC, the inquiries implicated ABC’s privilege against compelled production of confidential sources, the court held. Food Lion had proposed that ABC could “screen out” confidential sources, but the court ruled that this was impracticable because the subpoenas were overbroad, extending well beyond the time when the ABC investigation had concluded.

The court also found that Food Lion could not make the required showing that the information sought was crucial to the outcome of a claim or defense in the case, and that the information could not be obtained from any other source.

The grocery chain stated that it needed the information to get a full picture of ABC’s newsgathering activities for a 1992 “PrimeTime Live” story in which ABC used a hidden camera to show unsanitary practices at Food Lion. As a result of the broadcast, Food Lion sued ABC for fraud, misrepresentation, conspiracy, and unfair and deceptive trade practices. (Food Lion Inc. v. Capital Cities/ABC Inc.; Media Counsel: Hugh Stevens, Raleigh)