Seattle experienced violent street rioting on May 30 during which arsonists and looters destroyed and defaced buildings and cars, including several police vehicles that were torched and from which a number of officers’ weapons were stolen. The police identified several suspects and arrested them and recovered some, but not all, of the stolen weapons. When the investigation stalled, the city issued subpoenas to five local news outlets for any unaired video or unpublished photos taken by reporters capturing the event while it was happening.
Remarkably, the media outlets, KING 5, KOMO, KIRO, KCPQ, and The Seattle Times all refused to cooperate, citing a state statute known as the Shield Law, which requires the city to reasonably exhaust other options for obtaining the needed information. A judge ruled that the city met the requirements under that law to obtain the video and photos they sought. The outlets have now appealed that decision to the state’s Supreme Court.
Several criminals from that night of rioting still remain free, in possession of stolen firearms. Seattle residents have a right to question whether any valid freedom of the press issue is at stake here. The relevant video and photos might contain evidence of a crime being committed. There is no question in these circumstances of anonymous sources to protect or other freedom of the press issues—the footage and videos are of open acts committed on the city’s streets for all to see. The police are at a dead end in tracking down the remaining perpetrators.
So why are these media companies fighting law enforcement?
The Seattle Times editors argue in their pages that they must remain neutral when they enter the streets during a riot so that they can be safe. As proof, the editors tell of journalists who were injured or threatened because the rioters did not want their images recorded.
But that argument doesn’t prove much. What rioter, on his way to set fire to a building or auto, is willing to accept that his photo will be taken by a “neutral” member of the media? Since the media is there to record and print or put those images on television in the first place, how does it help to argue that some images won’t be printed? Any rioter worth their salt will still attempt to hide from the cameras or bash anyone carrying one. The media companies don’t hold the high ground with that argument.
Obviously, the judge didn’t buy that either. But for these media companies to continue to resist those subpoenas, while trumpeting dubious claims about freedom of the press, puts the citizens of Seattle at risk.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Police Department, dealing with the aftermath of its own violent rioting on August 10-11, has come up with a novel approach to identifying those responsible for the property destruction that took place there. They’ve created a website with videos of the looting, requesting citizens to help in identifying any of the suspects. Businesses with additional video of the looting can submit those as well.
One hundred people have been arrested so far in the Chicago looting, and 13 officers have been injured.
Photo from Wikipedia