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Compendium tracks reporter’s privilege laws

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From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 41.

From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 41.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press released a new detailed compendium of reporter’s privilege laws in December, geared toward helping subpoenaed journalists and their attorneys.

In 1999, 1,326 subpoenas were served on 440 U.S. news organizations. Almost half of all news media responding to a Reporters Committee survey received at least one subpoena that year.

The compendium, the most extensive work on the reporter’s privilege available, covers privilege laws in every state and federal circuit. The Committee hopes the compendium will be a valuable resource for attorneys representing journalists who have been subpoenaed.

The compendium was compiled over several months by attorneys from across the United States. Each state and federal circuit guide was written by a lawyer in that jurisdiction who has handled subpoena cases.

The Committee undertook the project in the hopes of aiding attorneys not familiar with the reporter’s privilege. A lawyer representing a journalist might not be aware that this privilege — some form of which is recognized in almost every state and circuit — exists to protect journalists from having to testify or present evidence in a judicial proceeding.

The compendium, which can be accessed for free on the Reporters Committee’s Web site, is meant to guide attorneys through the process of responding to subpoenas on behalf of journalists under the laws of their jurisdiction.

In addition to providing a detailed analysis of each state’s privilege laws, the guide provides practical information about subpoenas, including when and how a subpoena can be issued and how to make a motion to quash. The guide also covers contempt proceedings and the appeals process.

Subpoenas to journalists can be time-consuming, burdensome and costly. More importantly, compliance with subpoenas may mean disclosing confidential sources and can signal to the public that reporters are biased or controlled by the government. For these reasons, journalists and their attorneys are encouraged to resist compelled disclosure wherever possible.

The compendium also provides information on resisting newsroom searches by government authorities and fighting subpoenas issued to telephone companies in search of journalists’ sources.

The compendium is geared primarily toward lawyers, but journalists also will benefit from the project’s comprehensive guide to privilege laws.

The Reporters Committee advises journalists and news organizations to consult an attorney when served with a subpoena or search warrant.

The compendium, which was funded by a grant from the Philip Graham Fund, is online at