A group of news outlets appealed to the Washington Supreme Court Tuesday to block a Seattle Police Department subpoena seeking unpublished images of police protesters.
The Seattle Times and four local television stations argued that the images are protected by the state’s reporter shield law, and a King County Superior Court judge erred last month when ordering their release.
In Washington and most other states journalists are shielded from law enforcement subpoenas, except for limited circumstances. The laws are an extension of the First Amendment, meant to guard against government interference in news gathering.
Under King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee’s ruling, the media companies have until Aug. 21 to hand over raw and unpublished news photos and video footage taken during a 90-minute period when violence erupted during racial injustice protests in downtown Seattle on May 30.
The Seattle Police Department says the images would help identify several suspects who torched five Seattle Police Department vehicles and stole two police guns.
In Tuesday’s filings, the media companies sought to skip over the Court of Appeals and directly asked the Supreme Court to stay enforcement of the subpoena until the appeal is resolved.
“We’re hopeful the state Supreme Court will recognize the harm this subpoena poses for all journalists and news organizations in Washington, and to the public in general,” said Ray Rivera, managing editor of The Seattle Times.
American journalists have been attacked by both protesters and police across the country in recent months, including in Seattle. Demonstrators against police abuses often fear their images will be used by law enforcement for retaliation.
The outlets argued that police didn’t demonstrate that the unpublished images are “critical or necessary” for the gun and arson investigations, as required under Washington’s shield law — only that they may contain better images of suspects than what has already been published.
Also, the news companies said police didn’t first try all other means to identify suspects, as required by the shield law, pointing out that SPD had not yet made a public appeal for help using published images.
The news organizations appealed on procedural grounds as well, arguing they should have been able to object to the subpoena because it was overbroad and overly burdensome.
Besides the Times, the subpoena was served to TV stations KIRO, KING, KOMO and KCPQ.
Police are seeking all unpublished photos and video footage captured by the photojournalists’ news cameras between 3:30 and 5 p.m. on May 30, in the area between Olive Way and Pike Street, from Fourth to Sixth avenues.
Seattle police spokesperson Sgt. Lauren Truscott defended the subpoena in a statement Tuesday. A loaded Glock 43 semi-automatic pistol and a loaded Colt M4 carbine rifle with a suppressor were stolen from police vehicles during the protests and remain missing, according to police.
“Knowing too well the carnage that can be wrought by these firearms in our schools, our communities, and our homes should they fall into the wrong hands, SPD will not apologize for exercising its due diligence to use all means available under the law and through our courts to protect against such an outcome,” Truscott wrote.
In recent weeks the judge’s ruling came under fire from First Amendment groups, the ACLU, press organizations and even members of the Seattle City Council, who asked City Attorney Pete Holmes to drop the subpoena.
“While we appreciate the difficulty in maintaining public safety, it is not the job of the press to do the work of law enforcement,” Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, wrote in a statement.
Truscott suggested the criticism is misplaced.
“SPD followed the exact process that is prescribed by state law for precisely this type of situation,” she wrote. “To the extent that councilmembers or others have issue with that process, their grievance is better addressed with the legislature.”