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Reporters Committee urges Vermont high court to protect TV station's unbroadcast footage from subpoena

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged the Supreme Court of Vermont to uphold a lower court's dismissal…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged the Supreme Court of Vermont to uphold a lower court’s dismissal of a subpoena for a television station’s unbroadcast videotape of a riot. The Reporters Committee argued that allowing the subpoena of non-confidential materials turns journalists in investigators for police and other litigants, undermining their ability to gather and report the news.

WCAX television in Burlington, Vt., videotaped an October 21, 2004 riot at the University of Vermont following the Boston Red Sox American League Championship victory over the New York Yankees. WCAX broadcast portions of the tape that day, and voluntarily provided University of Vermont police with the aired footage upon request. The following day, before any other investigation, police subpoenaed WCAX’s unbroadcast footage.

Burlington District Court Judge Linda Levitt quashed the subpoena, holding that a qualified First Amendment privilege protects journalists from subpoena unless the information sought is relevant and material to guilt or innocence, and not adequately available elsewhere. Because the police had not exhausted non-media sources of information, Levitt held that they could not overcome the privilege. The Vermont Supreme Court agreed to hear the police department’s appeal.

“To permit the government or other litigants unfettered access to journalists’ non-confidential materials would create a substantial burden in terms of the time, effort and money required to respond to these subpoenas,” the Reporters Committee wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief. “Furthermore, when journalists become involved in litigation, sources of information and the public in general will view the news media as tools of government or litigant investigation, robbing journalists of the ability to act as observers and unattached conduits of information.”

The Reporters Committee was joined on the brief by three Vermont newspapers, The Burlington Free Press, The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and The Rutland Herald, and by The American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Radio-Television News Directors Association and The Society of Professional Journalists.

The brief can be viewed online at: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20050223-amicusbrie.html