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Seattle protest footage
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Judge grants pause on SPD subpoena for media footage of protest

Law enforcement from the King County Sheriffs Department guard the city streets during a riot on May 30, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

A King County Superior Court judge is granting a 21-day stay on a subpoena issued on behalf of the Seattle Police Department to acquire raw video footage taken by a handful of media outlets during a late-May protest.

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News organizations included in the subpoena — the Seattle Times, KING 5, KIRO 7, KOMO, and Q13 — have 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. SPD argued in its subpoena that it only intended to use the footage to investigate a specific pair of crimes: an arson and a firearm theft, in hopes of identifying a suspect for both crimes.

According to SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield, Judge Nelson Lee had originally ruled to allow SPD’s subpoena to move forward, before modifying it Thursday to make so that he would review all of the submitted footage first, and then only distribute the parts related to those specific crimes to SPD.

Schofield reports that on Friday, both SPD and the media outlets challenging the subpoena agreed to a 21-day stay of the order to hand over footage to allow the outlets time to appeal the ruling. The possibility of having a “special master” look over the footage instead has been floated, although that has not yet been officially decided on.

Seattle Times Executive Editor Michelle Matassa Flores expanded on the outlet’s position opposing the subpoena earlier this week, emphasizing the need to “stand independent of those we cover.”

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“When (protesters) accuse us of collaborating with law enforcement, the best we can do is state — honestly and sincerely — that we do not,” she said. “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.”

During Monday morning’s council briefing, Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Andrew Lewis all spoke out against the subpoena, calling on the city to withdraw it. According to Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, that responsibility lies with Mayor Jenny Durkan, “as SPD ultimately reports to her,” he noted on Monday.

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