A Washington state law defending journalists from subpoenas protected members of The Spokesman-Review staff from having to testify in the defamation case of a former sheriff’s deputy who was awarded nearly $20 million by a jury last month, appellate judges ruled Tuesday.
A three-member panel of the Washington state Court of Appeals ruled in a 19-page decision issued Tuesday that reporters and editors at the newspaper were protected from having to divulge conversations and documents related to how it covered the case of Jeffrey Thurman. Thurman’s case went to trial in Spokane County last month, and a jury found that former Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich defamed Thurman by saying an investigation concluded the deputy had used the N-word. Thurman successfully argued the accusation was fabricated by his accuser.
During the motions prior to trial, Thurman and his attorney, Mary Schultz, had sought to subpoena members of The Spokesman-Review staff, including editor Rob Curley, in an effort to determine whether an agreement had been made about coverage of the case before it was announced publicly. The Cowles Publishing Co. fought efforts to subpoena its journalists, citing Washington’s shield law, a 2007 state statute that prohibits courts from compelling reporters to testify except in certain situations.
“Mr. Thurman does not convincingly argue how the privileged information he seeks is highly material and relevant to his defamation claim,” Judge Robert Lawrence-Berrey wrote for the court.
Judges did say the newspaper was required to reveal the dates and times of any discussions between journalists and the sheriff’s office about coverage of the event.
Both Schultz and Casey Bruner, the attorney representing The Spokesman-Review in the matter, said there were positives from the ruling. The appellate court noted that the law has been in place for 15 years, but “there is no Washington appellate decision construing the breadth of qualified privilege at issue here.”
“The bright side of the ruling is it validated issuance of discovery to the media,” Schultz said, noting that a jury found Knezovich had defamed Thurman even without testimony from reporters.
But Bruner, speaking for The Spokesman-Review, noted the judges prohibited the release of documents or information related to coverage, citing the shield law.
“The position of The Spokesman-Review is that this is good for journalists statewide,” Bruner said. “It reaffirms the strength and importance of reporter privilege.”
Bruner said the newspaper was reviewing the ruling and no decision had been made on a possible appeal.
Thurman has also sued the Cowles Co. for defamation. That case is before the appellate courts after a lower court dismissed one of the claims against the paper on First Amendment grounds.
In a deposition in his defamation case, Knezovich testified that he was trying to protect a “clean investigation” in the Thurman matter and did not request the paper to stop investigating. The sheriff’s office placed Thurman on paid administrative leave on May 8, 2019, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. The Spokesman-Review published online a story on the outcome of the investigation and Thurman’s firing following a news conference held by Knezovich on June 13, 2019. The story ran in print the next morning.
Both attorneys said Tuesday’s opinion involved arguments separate from the ongoing defamation case against The Spokesman-Review. Bruner noted that the entity involved in the second defamation lawsuit is the Cowles Co., not the Cowles Publishing Co., which is a separate entity.