Several members of the Seattle City Council expressed disagreement with a King County judge’s order that five news outlets comply with a Seattle Police Department subpoena and release unpublished videos and photos from a May 30 racial justice protest.
“It is incredibly important that members of the press have the protection to say they are not actors of the government,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said during a council briefing on Monday. “We’re going to put at risk the lives of journalists if we continue to go down this avenue.”
In a July 23 ruling, King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee supported a police department subpoena seeking the photos and videos, ruling that they were critical to an investigation into the alleged arson of SPD vehicles and theft of police guns.
Lee said the news organizations were not protected by a Washington state shield law that under many circumstances prevents authorities from obtaining reporters’ unpublished materials. The media organizations are considering an appeal.
But the judge did place some limits on the subpoena, saying that police could use the images to identify suspects only in the arson and gun theft investigations. Detectives could not use the photos or video to pursue suspects in vandalism or other lesser crimes, even if police found such evidence.
The subpoena would also be limited to professional camera equipment and would exclude reporters’ cell phone photos and videos.
The Seattle Times and TV stations KIRO 7, KING 5, KOMO 4 and KCPQ 13 were all subpoenaed.
Mosqueda, who is married to a journalist, called the ruling “a violation of the rights of journalists,” while fellow Councilmember Lisa Herbold expressed concern about “the city’s pursuit of journalist records.”
“I do feel the city’s legal position puts media at great risk” and could have a “chilling effect,” Herbold said. “The media is not an extension of the government, period.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis joined his fellow councilmembers, “broadly and strongly condemning” the subpoena.
“The independence of the press in the United States is sacrosanct,” Lewis said. “Trust between the press and the citizenry is critical to ensuring the First Amendment rights of everyone are upheld.
“I do not think that it is the role of government to compel the press to appear as witnesses against their fellow citizens, and that in a sense is what this order would do.”
Lewis was clear about what he thinks should happen next.
“To the City Attorney, who has the power to drop this case: Pete Holmes, drop this case,” he said.
On Saturday, when Seattle saw another day of protests against police brutality and racial inequality, Councilmember Lorena González expressed concern over “the independence and freedom of our media outlets.”
She said she could be talking to fellow councilmembers about asking that the subpoena be withdrawn, “or pursuing some other legislative action” that increases protections for how media is able to access public spaces without worrying about “being compelled to be a witness in potential criminal cases.”
González said the council was considering a resolution “to reiterate our commitment to free and unfettered access for the media” and will be talking to the council’s law department about legislative and legal options.
“It’s a real threat to the integrity of the media,” González said, “and I take that threat really seriously.”