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Journalists' subpoenas quashed

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    News Media Update         ILLINOIS         Confidentiality/Privilege         Jan. 12, 2005    

Journalists’ subpoenas quashed

  • Chicago journalists do not have to turn over video- and audiotape footage, notes and other materials subpoenaed by a former police official, a federal judge has ruled.

Jan. 12, 2005 — A federal judge quashed subpoenas for notes and other materials gathered by three Chicago news outlets, ruling Jan. 5. that allowing the subpoenas would hamper future newsgathering and burden the public interest.

Former Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge subpoenaed the Chicago Tribune Co., WGN Continental Broadcasting Co. and WMAQ television for all broadcast and unbroadcast videotape and audiotape footage, and all documents, including notes and transcripts, of August interviews with Aaron Patterson, an alleged drug and weapons conspirator. Patterson, exonerated from Illinois death row in 2003, is suing Burge and other police officials for alleged torture.

In rejecting Burge’s arguments for subpoenaing the materials — mainly that information uncovered could help Burge defend himself, U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall ruled that the defendants had a weak case for subpoenaing the journalists and did not show a compelling interest for public disclosure.

Gottschall’s eight-page ruling comes less than two years after the U.S. Court of Appeals (7th Cir.) ordered three Chicago journalists to turn over tape recordings of their interviews with an FBI informant, holding that the First Amendment provided no special protection for the press against subpoenas for information from non-confidential sources. In that case, McKevitt v. Pallasch, the appellate court ruled that federal courts in the 7th Circuit — Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin — should simply determine whether such a subpoena “is reasonable in the circumstances.”

In Patterson v. Burge, Gottschall ruled the subpoenas of journalists unreasonable and said there was no compelling public interest for the reporters to turn over their materials as there was in McKevitt.

The defendants, she wrote, cannot assume that “their subpoenas seek information they do not already have or that is not readily available from other sources.”

Allowing the subpoenas could open the door for parties in civil suits to routinely subpoena journalists, she reasoned.

(Patterson v. Burge; Media counsel: Natalie Spears, Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, Chicago)KM

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