U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Court upholds subpoena of Richmond Times-Dispatch in civil lawsuit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
January 7, 2020
Richmond, Virginia

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
January 7, 2020

On Jan. 7, 2020, a subpoena was issued to the BH Media Group, owner of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, seeking published and source material from any interviews the newspaper had done with Jason Kamras, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools and one of the defendants in a lawsuit concerning an alleged cheating scandal at a local elementary school.

In July 2019, three of the school’s former teachers sued Kamras, the Richmond City School Board and Richmond Public Schools for “defamation and violation of their right to due process,” according to WRIC, the ABC affiliate station in Richmond. The teachers had proctored Standards of Learning tests in 2018 and were later cited in a Virginia Department of Education report that summarized testing irregularities and noted that “inappropriate assistance” had been provided by some school employees to help students pass their tests.

The Times-Dispatch covered the scandal throughout the summer of 2018. During pretrial discovery in the case, the plaintiffs subpoenaed the Times-Dispatch to produce published and unpublished material regarding the coverage of the scandal by the newspaper. The parties resolved most of the requests made in the subpoena with the exception of certain unpublished material, including the recording of an interview conducted between reporter Justin Mattingly and Kamras. In the motion to quash the subpoena, the newspaper argued that the First Amendment extends protection to all unpublished material obtained in the process of news-gathering and that the recording of the interview was irrelevant, since the plaintiff’s defamation claims were based on Kamras’ public statements.

On May 22, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied the motion to quash the subpoena, noting that the recording of the interview was testament to Kamras’ state of mind and deemed it plausible that Kamras made other similar, possibly defamatory statements during the course of the interview.

The court held that the newspaper’s claim that the information could be obtained from other sources, including cross-examination of the defendant, was nonviable, since the defendant’s recollection could raise concerns of credibility during the trial. It also acknowledged that the newspaper had diminished interest in protecting the source, since Kamras was not a confidential source, and ruled “that the interest in disclosure outweighs the Reporter's interest.”

When reached for comment, Richmond Times-Dispatch executive editor Paige Mudd told the Tracker that the newspaper “won’t have any comment on this matter.” David B. Lacy, an attorney for BH Media Group, did not respond to a request for comment. With no further information available, the status of the subpoena is noted as “upheld.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].