Newspaper ordered to turn over all photos in oil spill suit
WYOMING–In early April a federal District Court in Cheyenne ordered a Casper newspaper to produce unpublished photographs in response to a subpoena from a corporate defendant in a civil case. The court’s decision was the first to consider whether a qualified reporter’s privilege existed in Wyoming.
The Casper Star-Tribune asked the court to quash a subpoena served upon it by Amoco Corp. Amoco has been sued by landowners who live downstream from an Amoco refinery near the North Platte River. The landowners claim that oil spills from the refinery have damaged their property. The corporation sought unpublished photographs taken of a section of the river by a Star-Tribune photographer working on a series of reports on the pollution.
District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer did not decide whether or not a constitutional qualified reporter’s privilege protected the photographs, finding instead that, even if such a privilege did exist, it had been overcome because the photographs were not available from an alternative source.
“There is no manner or method by which Amoco could obtain copies of the particular photographs it seeks,” the judge wrote. Although federal and state investigators had also photographed the same area, Brimmer held that the governments’ photographs were “of limited utility because they were not taken simultaneously with or under the same conditions as the photographs taken by Hannon.”
“The decision was absolutely absurd,” said David Hipschman, editor of the Star-Tribune. “It violates the Constitution, age-old journalistic traditions, and raises private property issues regarding newspapers.
“It’s an attempt by a large corporation to intimidate a newspaper that had been critical of its conduct,” he said.
Hipschman said that the newspaper decided to comply with the subpoena and release the photographs due to the potential expense of pursuing an appeal and concerns about the newspaper’s chances of prevailing. (Wilson v. Amoco; media counsel: Hugh Duncan, Casper)