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Judge rejects attempt to force Seattle Times to produce documents

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Confidentiality/Privilege         Apr 10, 2002    

Judge rejects attempt to force Seattle Times to produce documents

  • A cancer research center wanted a newspaper to produce correspondence with plaintiffs who are suing the center, but a federal judge ruled that alternative sources for the information had not been exhausted.

Disagreeing that a reporter had “overstepped the bounds of journalism,” a federal judge ruled that The Seattle Times does not have to produce its communications with people who are suing a cancer research center.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle argued that Times reporter Duff Wilson had provided information and advice to the plaintiffs, thus losing the protection of a journalist’s constitutional privilege against revealing information gathered from sources.

But U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik ruled on April 2 in Seattle that the research center — nicknamed “The Hutch” — had no support for that theory and had not exhausted alternative sources for the information.

The center wanted copies of all correspondence between the Times and relatives of people who died in a leukemia experiment at the research center in the 1980s. The relatives sued the center, arguing that The Hutch failed to adequately inform patients of the risks of the experiment.

The Hutch sought the correspondence from the Times to prove that the statute of limitations for the plaintiffs’ claims had expired.

Lasnik wrote that he had “concerns about the propriety” of The Hutch’s motion to compel disclosure of the information, given the center’s failure to exhaust other options, including seeking testimony from the plaintiffs.

“The motion and the subpoena that preceded it were, in this context, coercive insofar as they could be expected to have appreciable adverse impacts on the Times and its reporters,” Lasnik wrote.

In an affidavit, Wilson said he believes the subpoena was in retaliation for a five-part Times series published in March 2001 that examined experimental cancer treatments at the center in which patients died prematurely. The series, cited on April 8 as a nominated finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, said patients and their families were never fully informed about the risks and were not told that the center and its doctors had a financial interest in the experiments.

Officials from The Hutch have denied any wrongdoing.

(Wright v. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Media counsel: Bruce E.H. Johnson, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle) MD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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