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SPJ calls on New York Court of Appeals to quash subpoena against Jana Winter



David Cuillier, SPJ National President, 520.248.6242, spjdave@yahoo.com
Ellen Kobe, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317.920.4785, ekobe@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – National leaders from the Society of Professional Journalists are standing up for the First Amendment rights of Jana Winter, an investigative reporter for FoxNews.com who faces jail time for refusing to reveal her confidential sources in a story about the man charged with the 2012 Aurora, Colo., theater shooting.

Winter’s lawyers will appear before the New York Court of Appeals on Tuesday, arguing that a subpoena seeking to compel her to appear in court in Arapahoe County, Colo., should be quashed. SPJ encourages the New York Court of Appeals to side with Winter’s case.

“It’s imperative the court end this now,” said SPJ President David Cuillier. “Winter should not be punished for doing her job, which includes protecting the identity of sources who come forward to help the public only if their identities can be protected.”

Winter’s story surrounding the case focused on a notebook that the alleged murderer James Holmes had mailed to a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado. Winter referred to two anonymous sources in her piece. Twenty different law-enforcement officials have denied being the source. Holmes’ lawyers want to know who talked to Winter, so they filed the papers to subpoena Winter across state lines.

Winter is based in New York City, under the umbrella of a state with one of the strongest press shield laws in the country, protecting journalists who promise confidentiality to their sources. In the Empire State, the reporter’s privilege is absolute: a journalist cannot be hauled into court and threatened with jail if she doesn’t reveal who gave her sensitive, confidential or embarrassing information.

But Colorado’s press shield law is much weaker than New York’s. The Colorado statute allows a judge to apply a balancing test to determine if a reporter must testify; the judge weighs whether the information sought is available from other sources and whether the compelled disclosure is justified under the First Amendment.

“Winter deserves the protections of New York,” Cuillier said. “Just because Colorado can’t get its act together does not mean journalists elsewhere should be punished.”

Winter already has lost twice in the New York Supreme Court. A justice granted the initial application for the subpoena; on appeal, a fractured 3-2 majority in the Appellate Division upheld that decision.

The judges of the Court of Appeals have a chance to right this wrong and refuse the application. All they need to do is examine the public policy behind the New York press shield law. Winter should get the protections of the New York press shield law.

The Court of Appeals should uphold New York’s longstanding and strong public policy supporting journalists’ ability to protect their confidential sources by rejecting the subpoena seeking Winter’s testimony in Colorado. A New York-based journalist shouldn’t be dragged into court elsewhere and be subject to the vagaries of a law less friendly to the press. But that is what could happen to Winter.

“There is more at stake here than just one reporter’s freedom,” Cuillier said. “Without strong shield laws in every state and at the federal level, journalists will continue to be targeted by government, and sources will be less likely to come forward to provide the public crucial information for making society better. This is not about the press. It’s about democracy.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

SPJ continually raises money for the Legal Defense Fund, an account aimed to provide journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. Visit http://www.spj.org/ldf.asp to request a grant or donate.

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