U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Judge quashes subpoena for freelance journalist’s confidential communications, reporting materials

Incident Details

Courtesy Zachary Petrizzo

A portion of a subpoena issued to freelance journalist Zachary Petrizzo seeking "documents, communications, drafts and notes" for a 2019 article he wrote for the Daily Dot.

— Courtesy Zachary Petrizzo
June 30, 2020

The plaintiff in a defamation suit subpoenaed notes, drafts and confidential source communications used by Zachary Petrizzo, a college student and freelance journalist, in a story Petrizzo reported for the Daily Dot about Republican operative Jack Burkman and his alleged relationship with the plaintiff.

Petrizzo was subpoenaed on June 30, 2020, as part of a defamation case brought by Margaret Howell — a former reporter for RT, a Kremlin-funded news outlet, and Right Side Broadcasting Network, a conservative broadcaster. Howell’s suit alleges that the defendants, Burkman’s stepson and estranged wife, were sources for Petrizzo’s 2019 Daily Dot article: “Jack Burkman, Who Accuses 2020 Candidates of Having Lovers, Has a Few Himself.”

The subpoena, which was reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, ordered Petrizzo to turn over any documents, communications, drafts and notes pertaining to the two defendants and appear in court on July 20, 2020.

Attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Tracker partner, represented Petrizzo and filed a motion to quash the subpoena on July 28, arguing that the plaintiff had asked for “a staggeringly broad array of documents, records, and information” and that the request violates the reporter’s privilege that Virginia courts recognize based on the First Amendment.

The motion also claimed that the subpoena was a transparent attempt to force disclosure of Petrizzo’s confidential sources for the article. Furthermore, the motion said, Howell did not attempt to obtain records of the communications from either defendant.

Virginia Judicial Circuit Judge Judith Wheat granted the motion to quash on Nov. 2, stipulating that a renewed subpoena could be considered if Howell is able to establish that she has exhausted other means of obtaining the information and that the reason for disclosure is sufficiently compelling to overcome the reporter’s privilege.

“The subpoena was extremely burdensome,” Petrizzo told the Tracker. “Without the legal aid of [RCFP], I most certainly would’ve struggled even more to deal with the legal process on my own.”

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