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Reporters Committee, media groups join fight over NYC subpoena of filmmaker Ken Burns

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in an effort to quash a New…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in an effort to quash a New York City subpoena seeking audio and video materials featuring interviews with the subjects of a documentary by Ken Burns about five men wrongfully convicted of the assault and rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989.

The Reporters Committee brief was joined by The Associated Press, Dow Jones & Co. Inc., Gannett Co. Inc., and The New York Times. Liz McNamara of Davis Wright Tremaine in New York served as local counsel.

Burns’ production company, Florentine Films, has made a film about the highly publicized case. The young men are currently suing the city for damages. The city is seeking unpublished interviews with the men and others associated with the case, claiming that reporter’s privilege does not apply because Burn’s daughter Sarah — who, along with her husband also worked on the film — once was employed as a paralegal for a law firm representing the accused and therefore is not a journalist.

“There is nothing to undermine the filmmakers’ claim that they were acting as independent journalists,” explained Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “As such, well-established law protects the compelled disclosure of both confidential and non-confidential unpublished material.”

“Media subpoenas, regardless of the type of information they seek, arouse a fear in sources that speaking with reporters will expose them to unwilling and unnecessary involvement in pending litigation,” the brief argued. “The city’s contention presents a problematic interpretation of both the state and federal shield law that, if heeded by this court, could significantly chill the ability of journalists to obtain such information from sources in the future.

“Subpoenas, whether they seek journalists’ confidential sources, non-confidential material or verification of published statements, threaten the neutrality and independence of the news media, casting them as agents of discovery in lawsuits that do not involve them.”

The Reporters Committee brief is posted to its website.

About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· News: Ken Burns team fights for shield law protection over Central Park jogger suit subpoena