Capitolbeat objects to NC General Assembly’s subpoena of a reporter
The Capitolbeat board today voted to voice our objections to a situation in North Carolina. Specifically, a legislative committee has subpoenaed testimony and unpublished work product from a television reporter. You can read more about this story here and here and here. Below is the letter that Capitolbeat President Laura Leslie sent on our organization’s behalf.
Senator Marc Basnight
President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate
16 W. Jones St., Room 2007
Raleigh, NC 27601
Senator Fletcher L. Hartsell,
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary II Committee
300 N. Salisbury St., Room 5I8
Raleigh, NC 27603
Senator Basnight and Senator Hartsell:
This letter is on behalf of Capitolbeat, the national association of statehouse reporters and editors. We are profoundly concerned about the orders and subpoenas you recently issued to UNC-TV and Senior Legislative Correspondent Eszter Vajda, a member of our Board, in reference to her investigative report on Alcoa’s Yadkin River Dam.
We understand that this specific circumstance is complex and involves issues beyond those surrounding press freedoms. We also take note that UNC-TV is a state agency, and could therefore be construed to be subject to the same legislative reporting laws that apply to other agencies. However, we strongly disagree with that interpretation. Even though the station is part of state government, its journalists and its work products are still entitled to not only First Amendment protections, but the protection of the state’s shield law as well.
Whatever the larger circumstances of the case may be, we must object to the legislative use of a subpoena to compel a journalist to testify and produce her work. Such action is counter to our nation’s tradition of press freedoms, and noxious to the idea of a free press. Furthermore, it sets a dangerous precedent. Journalists should never be compelled to serve as the investigative arm of a government agency.
As your subpoenas indicate, North Carolina G.S. 120-19 gives the General Assembly the right to demand information from state agencies. If you truly believe UNC-TV to be subject to that law, then the subpoenas are superfluous. But we believe that the shield law, G.S. 8-53.11, clearly supersedes both the orders and the subpoenas.
Senator Hartsell, you helped draft the shield law in 1999, and both of you supported the legislation when the General Assembly passed it. We ask that you withdraw your orders and subpoenas immediately.
Laura Leslie, President, Capitolbeat