U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Journalist subpoenaed by Facebook, seeking years of communications

Incident Details

Date of Incident
November 2021
Seattle, Washington

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
November 1, 2021

Seattle-based journalist Eli Sanders reported that in November 2021, Facebook issued him a subpoena seeking nearly four years of his reporting records.

The social media company was under investigation by the State of Washington for allegedly selling state political ads without maintaining data as is required under state law. Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a campaign finance lawsuit against Facebook on April 14, 2020.

According to his Substack newsletter, Wild West, Sanders had requested that Facebook send him its political ad data. When the company refused to do so, he filed complaints with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.

Sanders did not respond to emailed requests for comment from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Sanders wrote that in November 2020 the state informed him that he was being listed as a trial witness in the campaign finance lawsuit, citing his first-hand experience with Facebook’s failure to comply with state disclosure law. In November 2021, attorneys for the social media company issued him a subpoena.

According to Sanders, the subpoena sought documents from December 2017 to the present, including his reporting materials on Facebook political ads in the state, its failure to disclose information on those ads, communications with "any other person or entity" about the state's disclosure law, any communications between him and five other named sources from reporting on the topic across multiple years plus "anyone acting on their behalf."

Sanders wrote that he sought legal support from the Substack Defender program, and his attorney was able to reach an agreement with Facebook.

According to court records on the King County Superior Court system reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, attorneys for the state and Facebook filed a joint stipulation on April 13, 2022, specifying that Sanders would only be asked to testify about his requests to Facebook for political ad data and not about his sources. The stipulation also detailed that Facebook — which was then under the newly named Meta umbrella — would drop its document subpoena.

“What I could not understand was why Facebook, to prove its (ultimately failed) argument that Washington’s disclosure law can’t withstand constitutional legal scrutiny, would need to dig through years of my reporting records,” Sanders wrote.

According to his newsletter, Sanders sat for a “relatively brief” deposition a few weeks later, in late April or early May. The judge in the case ruled on Sept. 2 that Facebook had repeatedly violated that state disclosure law, rejecting the company’s request to gut the finance transparency law, The Washington Post reported.

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