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Journalists face subpoenas, contempt charges

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

From the Spring 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

Journalists continue to face demands for newsgathering material and news sources, as several unusual incidents in recent months show.

A California editor was jailed for five days for refusing to name his source, subpoenas for five years of materials from 159 news organization were severely limited in Oklahoma, and a journalism professor faces contempt charges after being subpoenaed for his notes — by a group of journalists.


Journalist released from jail after serving five-day sentence

Sacramento Valley Mirror editor and publisher Tim Crews was released from jail on March 1 after serving a five-day sentence for refusing to reveal his confidential source in a story involving the sale of an allegedly stolen firearm by a state patrol officer. He told the Associated Press that he was ready to return to jail if the court again demands that he reveal his source.

“I am still resolute. If we must go to jail again, then we must, in a heartbeat,” he said.

But the charge against the officer was withdrawn in late April, and Crews’ subpoena was subsequently withdrawn.

Superior Court Judge Noel Watkins in Sacramento originally ordered Crews to be held in contempt and to report to jail on Feb. 7, but then stayed the enforcement of his order until Feb. 24 to allow the California Supreme Court time to review Crews’ case. After the state Supreme Court decided to let the sentence stand, Crews filed a habeas corpus petition in federal District Court in Sacramento, but the judge denied the petition on Feb. 25. Crews immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.), but the federal appellate court did not stay the decision, and Crews reported to the Tehama County Jail on Feb. 26.

Crews refused to reveal his source for a story relating to a theft charge against California Highway Patrol officer Dewey Anderson. Anderson has pleaded not guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges relating to an allegedly stolen firearm. Anderson said he needed Crews’ testimony about his earlier story to establish that authorities knew about the allegations years ago, which would mean that the statute of limitations prevented prosecution.

Crews reported in the twice-weekly Valley Mirror that he was informed by officers that Anderson had stolen a handgun and that he was read portions of a written report concerning Anderson. The trial court found that the need of Anderson’s defense attorneys to know the identity of Crews’ sources outweighed Crews’ protection under California’s shield law.

Several media outlets, including The Copley Press, Inc., The Hearst Corp., Knight Ridder Inc., the Los Angeles Times, The McClatchy Co., The Orange County Register, The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat, Santa Barbara News-Press, The Press-Enterprise Co., California Newspaper Publishers Association, the California First Amendment Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the federal appellate court.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a letter in support of Crews’ petition before the state Supreme Court.

Crews told the AP that his five-day stint in Tehama County Jail “wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t terrible.” He said he spent the time in a minimum security barracks with a few dozen other individuals being held for drug offenses, drunken driving or misdemeanor thefts.

“I got some good interviews out of it,” he said. “The last night, I had a long discussion about Greek mythology with a guy in jail for firewood theft, a great guy.”

The AP reported that the San Francisco Bay Guardian sent two reporters at its own expense to put out Crews’ 12-page Tuesday newspaper, while friends and volunteers helped staff the office and get papers delivered. (Crews v. Tehama County Superior Court)


Judge rejects sweeping subpoena in Nichols case

On March 3, an Oklahoma state judge rejected Terry Nichols’ attempt to compel more than 150 news organizations to produce all their stories related to the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The judge upheld the subpoenas for editorial cartoons, however. All other information is available through the Oklahoma Historical Society, instead of through the news media directly, the judge ruled.

Nichols faces murder charges in state court related to the bombing, and his attorney, Brian Hermanson, subpoenaed 159 newspapers, television and radio stations across Oklahoma for news accounts of the bombing, including all articles, news stories, photographs, letters to the editor, cartoons, diagrams, editorials, advertisements, and “any other coverage of any kind” involving Nichols, Timothy McVeigh and Michael Fortier. McVeigh has been sentenced to death for his role in the bombing, and Fortier has pleaded guilty to bombing-related charges.

The Tulsa World, The Daily Oklahoman, the Hugo Daily News, and the Oklahoma Press Association challenged the subpoenas in court.

Nichols faces 160 counts of first-degree murder in state court. He is serving a life sentence in Colorado for his federal conspiracy conviction. (Oklahoma v. Nichols)


Court stays journalists’ demand for another journalist’s notes

A group of 18 Arizona reporters who are suing their former employer for libel convinced a Washington state judge in late March to compel another reporter to turn over interview notes, but that decision has been stayed by an appellate court pending review.

The libel suit 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 that 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 Underwood also quoted an editor who said that most of those laid off were “fat, lazy, incompetent and slow.”

Eighteen of the 60 reporters who had been laid off in 1997 sued the newspapers’ parent company and the editor for defamation. The editor admitted making the remark, but said it was aimed at reporters who had leaked stories to a competing newspaper. The former journalists then served Underwood with a subpoena to produce his notes of the conversation, arguing that the notes would help clarify to whom the editor was referring.

Underwood contested the subpoena, but was ordered on March 22 to turn over the material directly to the Arizona reporters. A motion for reconsideration was denied, and Underwood asked the appellate court to stay the order, which it did on April 7, the day by which Underwood was to comply with the order.

Underwood has argued that the trial judge’s decision to force him to turn over material that is not necessary to the proceeding violates his rights under the First Amendment. He also argued that before compelling disclosure, the judge should have reviewed the material in chambers to determine if it was relevant or necessary. The question of whether nonconfidential information in a reporter’s possession is protected under the First Amendment has not been addressed by Washington’s high court, the professor argued.

Washington is one of the 19 states that does not have a shield law.

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