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Reporters' demand for professor's notes granted by court

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Confidentiality/Privilege         Apr 13, 2000    

Reporters’ demand for professor’s notes granted by court

  • A group of Arizona reporters convinced a court to compel another journalist to turn over his notes, but the decision has been stayed pending appeal.

A group of 18 Arizona reporters who are suing their former employer for libel convinced a Washington state judge in late March to compel another reporter to turn over interview notes, but that decision has been stayed by an appellate court pending review.

The libel suit arose after University of Washington professor Doug Underwood wrote a story for Columbia Journalism Review in January 1998 about competing corporate and journalistic interests at newspapers, which included a discussion of staff layoffs at the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette. Reporters told Underwood that they had been told their reporting was interfering with the newspaper’s corporate interests, but an Underwood also quoted an editor who said that most of those laid off were “fat, lazy, incompetent and slow.”

Eighteen of the 60 reporters who had been laid off in 1997 sued the newspapers’ parent company and the editor for defamation. The editor admitted making the remark, but said it was aimed at reporters who had leaked stories to a competing newspaper. The former journalists then served Underwood with a subpoena to produce his notes of the conversation, arguing that the notes would help clarify to whom the editor was referring.

Underwood contested the subpoena, but was ordered on March 22 to turn over the material directly to the Arizona reporters. A motion for reconsideration was denied, and Underwood asked the appellate court to stay the order, which it did on April 7, the day by which Underwood was to comply with the order.

Underwood has argued that the trial judge’s decision to force him to turn over material that is not necessary to the proceeding violates his rights under the First Amendment. He also argued that before compelling disclosure, the court should have reviewed the material in chambers to determine if it was relevant or necessary. The question of whether nonconfidential information in a reporter’s possession is protected under the First Amendment has not been addressed by Washington’s high court, the professor argued.

Washington is one of the 19 states that do not have shield laws.

(Underwood v. Azula; Media Counsel: Bruce Johnson, Seattle)


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