SEATTLE — A judge has ruled that KING 5, along with four other Seattle news outlets must comply with a subpoena and give the Seattle Police Department unpublished video and photos from a May 30 racial justice protest.
King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee sided with the police department in a Thursday hearing, ruling that its subpoena was enforceable.
Lee found that the photos and video were critical for an investigation into the alleged arson of police vehicles and theft of police guns.
Lee says the news organizations were not protected by a Washington state shield law that under many circumstances prevents authorities from obtaining reporters' unpublished materials.
KING 5, along with KOMO, KIRO, KCPQ and the Seattle Times, have attempted to block the subpoena, and are now determining legal options, while First Amendment advocates question the precedent set by such a move.
All of those news organizations aired hours of live footage of the May 30 protests in Seattle. But the subpoena demands materials that were not published or used in broadcasts.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, through a spokesperson, declined an interview request on Friday. Instead, she issued a lengthy statement.
“SPD has dedicated over 1,000 hours to investigating the arson of police cars and the theft of dangerous weapons from police cars," the statement read in part. "SPD has exhausted all reasonable means to obtain the requested information from alternative sources. SPD does not take its requests to the press lightly, and only sought the Court’s approval for a subpoena as a last resort.”
Best's statement continues, “The judge found yesterday that SPD has met that high standard. At SPD’s suggestion, the judge limited SPD’s use of the requested video and photos to only identifying the suspects who burned SPD vehicles, and stole firearms from SPD vehicles. SPD will continue to seek the return of the two loaded firearms stolen from SPD vehicles, and arrest of the persons who stole firearms and lit police cars on fire.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, in an interview with KING 5, said that she believed in protecting the press and represented some reporters when she first started practicing law in Washington, D.C.
But Durkan said she would need to hear more about this case.
“I think we have to really make sure that there is a need to ever subpoena a reporter for anything. And I want to talk to the chief to make sure I understand what they exhausted before they did this,” she said.
Durkan added, “I think we really have to make sure that we don't do what would kill First Amendment rights.”
Patricia Gallagher Newberry, national President for the Society of Professional Journalists, spoke to KING 5 on Friday on the First Amendment issues that the ruling raises.
“It's ludicrous. Journalists don't work for law enforcement and never have," she said. "We each have our specific roles in these kinds of stories. Journalists go out on the street and collect words and images to share with their audience. And law enforcement have their role which is to keep peace in order and allow for free expression on the streets during said protests. So journalists don't work for law enforcement, law enforcement, don't work for journalists. Each side has their own lane, and for very good reason. So this is really quite an overreach.”
She called it a slippery slope.
“Are they going to come at you again? And is it going to be a signal to other law enforcement in other jurisdictions that this might be a good strategy? So I do, I am concerned about that setting any kind of new precedent, especially in the midst of this very fraught and very elevated story,” she said.
The Pacific Northwest Guild, the union that represents employees at The Seattle Times, said it was "alarmed" by Lee's ruling.
"We disagree in the strongest possible terms. This move by SPD and decision by Judge Nelson Lee undermines the credibility of local journalists and puts us at risk for danger," the union said in a prepared statement.
KING 5 News Director Pete Saiers also spoke against the ruling.
“KING strongly opposes the judge’s ruling that damages our editorial independence and credibility at a time when the public needs accountability reporting more than ever. As journalists we do not work with, or for, the government entities we cover. When we’re turned into a fact-gathering apparatus, it undermines our constitutionally protected role and harms the flow of information to the public.”
Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for next week.