Less than 24 hours before a court order required them to turn over their raw and unpublished news photos and videos, five Seattle media companies won a temporary respite in a legal battle pitting free press protections against the power of police investigations.
A Washington state Supreme Court commissioner on Thursday postponed a King County judge’s order from last month that would have required The Seattle Times and local television stations KIRO, KING, KOMO and KCPQ to comply with a Seattle police subpoena by handing over photos and video taken during racial injustice protests in May.
Instead, Commissioner Michael E. Johnston agreed with the news companies’ motion for an emergency stay to King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee’s July 31 order while the high court considers what to do with the media groups’ appeal of Lee’s ruling.
“On balance, I am not persuaded that the potential harm to SPD outweighs the potential harm to the news media,” Johnston wrote in his ruling.
Lee had given the news companies until Aug. 21 to produce to his court their unpublished images taken during a 90-minute period when violence erupted during racial injustice protests in downtown Seattle on May 30.
Last month, the Seattle Police Department contended it was at a standstill in its investigation of arson and thefts amid the violence, leading detectives to seek and obtain a subpoena for the raw news images. Investigators say the images could help identify several suspects who torched five Seattle Police Department vehicles and stole two police guns — a loaded Glock 43 semi-automatic pistol and a loaded Colt M4 carbine rifle with a suppressor — from police vehicles during the mayhem.
The news groups countered that Washington’s so-called “shield law” protected the images from disclosure. As in most states, journalists in Washington are shielded from law enforcement subpoenas except under limited circumstances. The laws are an extension of the First Amendment, meant to guard against government interference in news gathering.
Lee, a former King County prosecutor, ruled that the rare public safety concerns of the case overrode the shield law’s protections, subjecting the news photos and video to the subpoena. Under his order, Lee or a special master of his choosing would have screened the media images privately to decide whether any should be turned over to police to help with their investigation.
The ruling drew criticism from First Amendment groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, press organizations and even members of the Seattle City Council, who asked City Attorney Pete Holmes to drop the subpoena. Seattle police officials, however, have defended the subpoena as necessary to solve the investigation and retrieve the weapons, which remain missing.
On Aug. 11, the news groups appealed directly to the Supreme Court, asking the panel to stay enforcement of the subpoena until the court resolved the news groups’ contentions that Lee erred in his ruling.
In his 7-page ruling on Thursday, Johnston, the Supreme Court’s commissioner, considered the respective harm that approving or denying a stay of Lee’s order would have on the media and the police. He ultimately found the media’s concerns about invasion of their constitutional news gathering rights and public perception of their independence outweighed police’s public safety concerns.
“The equities favor the news media, though I am deeply mindful of the public safety concerns attendant to stolen police firearms and intentional destruction of law enforcement vehicles and other property,” Johnston wrote.
The Supreme Court will decide at “the earliest opportunity as to whether to retain the (media companies’) appeal or refer it to the Court of Appeals,” Johnston’s ruling stated.