SPJ NorCal Condemns Attack on Shield Law Protections During George Floyd Protests


The Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter condemns a startling decision by a Washington state judge, ruling that news outlets including The Seattle Times must hand over footage and photos of Seattle protests to police.

This alarming result occurred in spite of Washington State’s 2007 Shield Law, which protects information obtained by the media in its news-gathering capacity — including video footage, photos, and notes.  The court’s decision that journalists can be required to turn these materials over to the government can only have a strong chilling effect on coverage of civil rights demonstrations. 

We cannot state this strongly enough: the press does not work for the police. The press is a watchdog, reporting on the police.  If the Seattle police want footage of protests, they must send out their own crew or rely on other lawful methods of surveillance. The fact that a judge has ruled that the press must turn over their footage forces journalists into the compromised position of doing the government’s job. This endangers the press’s ability to cover future protests, since the public could view reporters as an extension of law enforcement.

“They might as well put police uniforms on us if they’re going to compel us to become state’s witnesses,” said Karl Mondon, a veteran staff photographer at the San Jose Mercury News, and member of the Freedom of Information Committee. “Staying safe while documenting these tense street demonstrations, now in the midst of a global pandemic, is already risky enough.  This ruling just makes the targets already on our backs even bigger.”

This is not a new issue for us in Northern California. We saw these abuses in our region last year, when five unlawful search warrants were issued for the San Francisco police to raid a San Francisco journalist’s home. SPJ-NorCal helped to unseal the warrants, all of which ultimately were quashed or invalidated by the judges who had issued them. This year, the City and County of San Francisco approved a significant monetary payment to settle a civil claim by the journalist.

The ruling sets a dangerous precedent at a time when news coverage of civil rights demonstrations across the country is more important than ever.  We stand ready to support and advise our West Coast colleagues facing attacks on the legal protections that guard their work.


Freedom of Information Committee