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Seattle councilmember: SPD compelling media to hand over footage is ‘abhorrent’

Protesters holding a Black Lives Matter banner shout at law enforcement officers on May 30, 2020 in Seattle. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

A trio of Seattle City Councilmembers roundly condemned a subpoena issued by the Seattle Police Department, which will soon compel the Seattle Times, KING 5, KIRO 7, KOMO, and Q13 to hand over raw video footage taken during a late-May protest.

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SPD claims in its subpoena that it intends to use the footage — spanning roughly 90 minutes from May 30 — as evidence in an arson, as well as the theft of a firearm, in hopes of identifying suspects for both crimes.

News organizations included in the subpoena pushed back on it in recent weeks, claiming that it would set a dangerous precedent for the freedom of members of the media to cover protests. To wit, KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott pointed out that KOMO was blocked by protesters from covering a Tuesday night rally, while “one leader on a megaphone warned the crowd to watch out” for news cameras from KOMO, KING, KIRO 7, and KOMO.

Regardless, a King County Superior Court judge allowed the subpoena to move forward last Thursday, qualifying his ruling by saying that SPD can only use the footage to identify suspects in the arson and firearm theft.

“Journalists are not part of the police machine,” Society of Professional Journalists President Patricia Gallagher Newberry told KTTH’s Jason Rantz Show. “Journalism has never existed to assist law enforcement in bringing their investigations to a close. It really is quite unusual for the police department to be seeking these materials.”

During Monday morning’s council briefing, Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Andrew Lewis all spoke out against the subpoena.

“It is abhorrent that our city continues to push for members of the press to hand over video and photos of people participating in their First Amendment rights,” Mosqueda said. “This is not appropriate, [and] it is, I believe, a violation of the rights of journalists.”

“I too feel that the city’s legal position puts the media at great risk, and has an unacceptable and chilling effect on their efforts to hold government accountable,” Herbold agreed. “The media is not an extension of government, period.”

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Concurring with Mosqueda and Herbold, Councilmember Lewis noted that the rights of an independent press are “sacrosanct,” and that “trust between the press and citizenry is critical to ensuring that the First Amendment rights of everyone are upheld, and that the press is a trusted institution not held in suspicion by the public.”

Lewis went on to petition City Attorney Pete Holmes to withdraw the case, which is being led by his office on behalf of SPD.

“I’ll be blunt: To the City Attorney who has the power to drop this case — Pete Holmes, drop this case,” he stated.

A spokesperson for Holmes told SCC Insight on Monday that his office has “reached out to Mayor Durkan to ask how she’d like SPD to proceed with this subpoena, as SPD ultimately reports to her.”

Durkan has yet to comment on her plans in the days ahead.


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