I’ve received some pointed messages lately about the Seattle Police Department’s subpoena ordering us to hand over unpublished photos and video from the May 30 protests downtown. Many of you are pretty worked up about the subpoena and our efforts to quash it.
Your opinions generally fall into distinct camps, captured by these two tweets directed at me:
“Keep fighting! And thank you for standing up for the free press.”
“So, you don’t want to help catch crooks. You’re awful.”
If you missed the news, the police have subpoenaed outtakes from a 90-minute period at the end of May, when protests against the police killing of George Floyd ended in car fires, vandalism and looting in Seattle’s downtown retail core. The subpoena, directed at The Seattle Times and four local TV stations, focuses on the search for people who torched six police vehicles and stole loaded weapons from them. Investigators have arrested two suspects but say they have hit dead ends in their search for others. Two of the five weapons remain missing.
A King County judge has ruled in favor of the police — an order set to be entered into court Thursday morning — and the media are considering an appeal.
Let me be clear: Our opposition to this subpoena does not mean we wish to protect criminals.
It’s not that we want criminals to run free, or that we’re motivated by kinship with protesters. In fact, if protesters sued us for unpublished footage to argue police had brutalized them, we would react the same way. If the issue centered on a gun-rights demonstration instead of one against police brutality, we would react the same way. If any source from any public agency, private business, political party or citizen group sought raw notes or any other unpublished material from us, we would guard that material just as vigorously.
Our reasons have nothing to do with the parties involved. They have everything to do with our role — the role of journalism — in society.
We must stand independent of those we cover. We are documenting current events and recording history, and the more freely we’re able to do that, the more informed the public will be. An informed public can ask better questions, not only of public officials and others in power, but of each other and themselves.
Better questions, public scrutiny and accountability lead to better decisions, made in the public interest.
That’s why our nation’s founders gave the free press constitutional protection. It’s why we act as a proxy for the public and why our role is viewed as part of the checks and balances that are among the great attributes of our democracy.
That’s the lofty, philosophical foundation we seek to protect. We also seek to protect the physical safety of our journalists.
Journalists have always put themselves in harm’s way to cover the news, whether rushing toward an active crime scene, standing in the eye of a hurricane or embedding with combat troops. But right now, with tensions in this country among the highest ever, we are often caught in the crossfire or, worse, targeted directly.
In this case, the masses of peaceful protesters calling for police accountability are usually happy to see media coverage of their message. But a smaller group, with some members bent on committing crimes, do not want to be captured on film. Some of them have chased our photojournalists, punched them, thrown rocks at their heads, harassed them, threatened them and posted their personal information online to instigate more harassment.
When they accuse us of collaborating with law enforcement, the best we can do is state — honestly and sincerely — that we do not. While that may not guarantee our safety, it can help swing opinion within a small group in the heat of the moment. And it certainly helps us maintain credibility in the bigger picture over the arc of time.
But it gets harder to make that point with conviction if we know our resolve may not matter in court.
The state’s shield law requires the police in this case to prove they have exhausted all reasonable alternative means to identify their suspects. Judge Nelson Lee has ruled they met this standard — even though a detective testified that they hadn’t made a public plea for help using photos they already possess. Not only that, the detective hadn’t yet looked through a 69-image photo gallery already published by The Seattle Times.
The news organizations are now weighing the legal grounds for a possible appeal. It’s heartening that we’ve received backing from all over the country, not just from other journalists and journalism groups but also from ordinary citizens who understand what’s at stake.
Many have given moral support. Some have offered money for legal fees. And others just have strong opinions of their own. This guy, sharing news of the subpoena with his 38 Twitter followers, pretty much summed it up:
“This is wrong,” he tweeted, “on so many levels!”