Student Who Witnessed Murder Trying To Use Journalism Shield Law

from the this-seems-odd dept

Romenesko points us to the news that a journalism student who witnessed a murder (and took some photos) in San Francisco is now trying to use California's journalist shield law to refuse to cooperate with police. The law is intended to protect journalists from having to reveal sources -- and we've noted a few recent lawsuits where "amateur" journalists have been trying to use such shield laws to protect their sources. In some of those discussions, some people pointed out that people might just automatically declare themselves a journalist to get covered by the law, though it seemed like that could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis -- and this case may push the borderline a bit.

The student was acting as a photo journalist, as part of his senior project, documenting the life of the guy who was shot and killed. His lawyer points out that part of the reason for such shield laws is so that reporters can observe and report without becoming a part of cases as witnesses. However, some would argue that's really meant for reporters who are investigating the details of a crime, not those who witnessed the crime in action. On top of that, there's the issue that, if the student does provide info to the police, his own life would be put in danger as well. I'm a big supporter of shield laws for journalists, and understand what the student is doing, but wonder if a judge might use this case to puncture a hole in those shield laws.


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  1.  
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    Grokk, May 21st, 2009 @ 5:13pm

    I would think that he'd be an eye witness first and a journalist second.

    I hope he's forced to reveal what he knows.
    The last thing this world needs is another journalist with more interest in 'the next big story' than what's happening around them and around the world.

    There is obviously a murderer on the streets that this guy knows about and by pulling a bullshit law to hide behind he's ensuring that said murderer stays on the streets.

     

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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), May 21st, 2009 @ 5:23pm

    Hrmm

    It's tough. This one feels like a pretty clear 'witness' case (and the safety of the witness is rarely even an afterthought.)

    OTOH, I can see a detail or two being changed (say, infiltrating an illegal organization for investigative purposes) and the entire 'feel' would shift.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 21st, 2009 @ 5:24pm

    Re:

    Or you know the fact that he is scared that his OWN life might be put in danger. I am sure if police could come to a compromise so as not to reveal his identity and keep him safe while he could reveal the evidence and whatnot then he would be more willing to help out. Oh and if you read he was doing a senior PROJECT and NOT a NEWS STORY.

     

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    Mojo Bone, May 21st, 2009 @ 5:35pm

    I'm thinking that in most states, he can't be compelled to testify, shield law or not. If the subject of the story were a child who had been beaten to death, there could certainly be some liabilities; lots of states would be inclined to treat him as an accessory after the fact or charge him with obstruction/contempt.

    I would hope that, in his situation, I'd have the courage to do the right thing, but witness intimidation would be difficult to ignore, when it's coming from someone who's killed once already.

     

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    RevueFu, May 21st, 2009 @ 6:15pm

    Good Citizenship

    While I understand a reporter's reluctance (and at times outright refusal) to declare sources, the whole point of being a reporter is to tell people what they have seen/discovered. To me this would kill any shield law defense because if said journalist (despite being a student or intern) writes a report of the event they've seen, then the police have their information and already know its source.As would the suspect. If s/he refuses to act in the role of a reporter in the first place, then how can they legitemately (sp?) claim to be a reporter trying to shield a source?

    Really, this sounds like a very weak argument to keep from being forced via subpoena to testify as to what s/he witnessed. Granted, this person may be be placing their self in danger, but I would argue that is simply where one has to balance Citizenship against self-preservation.

     

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    ToySouljah, May 21st, 2009 @ 7:12pm

    Does he even "own" his story?

    Being that the "reporter" was doing a class project, then wouldn't that mean the school owns his work? So can't the police go to the school and request his/her work as part of an ongoing investigation? This way the student is protected since it could then be submitted anonymously (sort of). Plus, if they are a photo journalist and have photos of the actual crime and refuse to release them then I would think that would be obstruction of justice. I'm sure the police would not simply give out the witnesses info and endanger their safety unless of course the police are also involved with the people who committed the crime and the student knows this....but that is highly unlikely...not impossible though...lol.

     

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    Techsupoort, May 22nd, 2009 @ 12:46am

    RE:

    Really, this sounds like a very weak argument to keep from being forced via subpoena to testify as to what s/he witnessed. Granted, this person may be be placing their self in danger, but I would argue that is simply where one has to balance Citizenship against self-preservation.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 22nd, 2009 @ 3:49am

    Another "citizen jounalist" who has no clue. Makes you wonder how correct the news reporting will be when it's done by a bunch of people like this.

     

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    hegemon13, May 22nd, 2009 @ 6:22am

    Re: RE:

    "...but I would argue that is simply where one has to balance Citizenship against self-preservation."

    That's easy to say when you are not in the position of having to preserve yourself.

     

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    Man from Atlanta, May 22nd, 2009 @ 8:18am

    Smokescreen

    Perhaps this student is trying to avoid discussing how he ended his project a little early?

     

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    JustMe, May 22nd, 2009 @ 8:39am

    So the killer goes free?

    Also, from TFA

    "had been following the 21-year-old Bennett for several months as part of his senior project in photojournalism. He was with him the afternoon of April 17 when Bennett, a business student at City College of San Francisco, was shooting dice near Griffith Street and Navy Road in the neighborhood where he grew up."

    There is a high probability that the bad guy already knows who it is, so not providing information to the police doesn't really help him much.

     

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    The infamous Joe, May 22nd, 2009 @ 9:39am

    Re: Re:

    The article says the police performed a search warrant of this kid's place. Now, IANAL, but I thought search warrants were public record.

    ..so, the cat is kinda out of the bag, isn't it?

     

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    nasch, May 22nd, 2009 @ 3:49pm

    Re:

    I'm thinking that in most states, he can't be compelled to testify, shield law or not.

    Why do you say that?

     

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