Pierce County prosecutors shouldn’t mess with free press. We won’t lay down our shield

The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office recently swung a legal sledgehammer at a cornerstone of the free, independent press that upholds the public’s right to know.

Prosecutor Mary Robnett didn’t see it that way, naturally. She tried to downplay the impact of the subpoenas that one of her deputy prosecutors had served on the TNT and three Puget Sound television stations in early August.

But make no mistake, applying legal pressure on reporters to cough up information in a whistleblower case is not only inappropriate, it’s a highly unusual tactic. And the buck stops with Robnett. Less than a year into her first term, it seems she needs to do a better job overseeing her staff’s exercise of subpoena power.

Robnett has now apparently decided to suspend her office’s assault on reporter privilege. If that changes, we trust a judge will make a careful reading of Washington’s reporter shield law and reach the only logical conclusion: to quash the subpoenas, once and for all.

This would set important precedent for a shield law that’s barely been battle tested since its creation 12 years ago.

For journalists, it’s an article of faith that we don’t reveal our sources or turn over the material we obtain or prepare in the newsgathering process. Few government insiders would share evidence of malfeasance or waste if they had reason to believe we’ll succumb to official strong-arming.

There are exceptions to the rule, such as when national security, someone’s life or another compelling public interest is at stake.

Frankly, however, helping the county pin down exactly when a whistleblower complaint in the medical examiner’s office was shared with news media, versus when it was officially filed with the county, doesn’t strike us as a compelling public interest

Thank goodness for a little thing called the First Amendment, as well as the shield law approved by the Washington Legislature in 2007.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire had it exactly right when she signed the bill, saying news media serve a vital watchdog role and that reporter privilege makes citizens more comfortable sharing sensitive information that holds officials accountable.

Robnett said complying with the recent subpoenas would be no big deal because reporters weren’t asked to give up their sources. All prosecutors wanted, she said, is the date and time reporters received a copy of a whistleblower’s report from Dr. Megan Quinn, the No. 2 official in the medical examiner’s office, who has accused her boss, Dr. Thomas Clark, of misconduct.

Sorry, but we don’t see it that way.

In essence, prosecutors asked reporters to lay down a shield that was designed to defend against slings and arrows of all kinds. The statute prohibits the forced disclosure of “notes, outtakes, photographs, video or sound tapes, film, or other data of whatever sort” (emphasis ours) that journalists may use to keep the public informed.

One of the most distressing parts of this prosecutorial overreach is that Robnett apparently wasn’t aware of it in advance. Nor did she take time in the days immediately afterward to examine whether the subpoenas infringed on reporter privilege.

“I haven’t researched that particular issue,” Robnett told TNT staff writer Alexis Krell. “Clearly our deputy prosecutor who issued this researched it and believed it did not violate the shield law. That may be a subject for further discussion with The News Tribune and other outlets.”

Prosecutors withdrew the subpoenas, but merely on a bureaucratic technicality, and they reserved the right to issue them again. An administrative law judge was set to consider a motion to quash the subpoenas on Aug. 27.

Now all signs point to prosecutors giving up this fool’s errand after using other channels to obtain the information they sought.

That’s great, although this episode clearly didn’t need to happen in the first place. It’s eerily reminiscent of a blunder inside Seattle City Hall in 2007, from which there are lessons to be learned.

Three Seattle Times reporters were subpoenaed by the city in the vain hope they’d divulge confidential sources cited in stories they wrote about police misconduct. Afterward, City Attorney Thomas Carr claimed he didn’t know a lawyer on his staff was trying that approach.

Not only did Carr revoke the subpoenas, he promised he’d take a hands-on role in the future: “We now have a policy that all newspaper subpoenas must be approved.”

It was a prudent decision just months after Washington’s reporter shield law was created. And it would be prudent for Mary Robnett take the same step 12 years later.

Trying to bring the public’s independent watchdogs to heel should be attempted only in the rarest of circumstances, under careful administrative oversight, if at all.