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Judge quashes subpoena for journalism professor's notes

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
A federal judge in Seattle yesterday granted a journalism professor’s motion to quash a subpoena from lawyers representing Chicago police…

A federal judge in Seattle yesterday granted a journalism professor’s motion to quash a subpoena from lawyers representing Chicago police officers in a civil rights case.

Judge Marsha Pechman of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled in favor of Carolyn Nielsen, who wrote articles about a now-exonerated teenage murder defendant during graduate school. Pechman also awarded Nielsen a protective order against future deposition and her attorneys fees and costs.

Nielsen is now a professor at Western Washington University, but during her studies at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1994 she published articles detailing the seemingly unjust trial and conviction of Thaddeus “TJ” Jimenez.

Jimenez was 13 years old at the time he was arrested and received a 45-year sentence for the murder of an 18-year-old. Nielsen's reporting exposed new details of the teenager's arrest and conviction that suggested his innocence. That caught the attention of lawyers, who then won Jimenez's release in May 2009. He subsequently sued the Chicago Police Department and several officers in federal court in Illinois. In defending the case, lawyers for the police served Nielsen with the subpoena for her notes and correspondence with Jimenez.

Judge Pechman analyzed the motion under the federal case law that governs the state of Washington, where the subpoena was served. The precedent of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is also binding also on other Western states, recognizes a constitutionally based journalist’s privilege.

The court ruled that because Nielsen created the materials for her graduate school magazine, for her freelance reporting, and in order to write a book about Jimenez, the privilege applied to this case.

“All of the documents were created with journalistic intent from inception, and culminated or are intended to culminate in publicly-consumable publication. Given that other circuits have not differentiated professional journalists from students in this context, this Court finds no reason to deny her standing simply because she was a student when some of the documents were created,” the order read.

Furthermore, in finding that the requesters did not overcome the subpoena, the court applied the standard from a 1995 case, Shoen v. Shoen, and found that defendants failed to exhaust alternative sources for the information because they never attempted to depose Jimenez or anyone else regarding the documents. The court also ruled that the documents only duplicated what the requesters already had or could easily obtain and were not legally relevant to the civil rights lawsuit.

“It's wonderful for me, but most importantly, it's wonderful for journalism,” Nielsen said.