Memphis newspaper subpoenaed for photos, videos from July protest

August 13, 2020

On Aug. 13, 2020, a judge granted a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation request for a subpoena of the Commercial Appeal for photographs and videos taken by the Memphis daily during its coverage of a protest on July 4, 2020. A gag order was also put into effect.

The protest took place outside the home of Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich amid a monthslong surge of demonstrations across the country, sparked by the May death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On July 4, protesters had gathered outside Weirich’s house, calling for her firing, launching fireworks and burning American flags near her property line, the Commercial Appeal reported.

Shortly thereafter, according to the paper, the Memphis Police Department requested that the Commercial Appeal turn over images from its coverage for use in the department’s investigation of the day’s events. The paper did not comply with the request. The following month, the TBI filed a subpoena for the videos and photographs.

The paper reported that it filed a motion to quash the subpoena on Aug. 19, arguing that the state shield law and state precedent protected the images as part of journalistic work product.

“Enforcement of the subpoena in this case would discredit movants as disinterested gatherers of information, would violate their rights under the cited statutory and constitutional provisions, and would have an intimidating effect on them in the reporting of events observed and investigated by them in their capacity as journalists," Lucian Pera, an attorney for the Commercial Appeal, told the paper.

On Aug. 20, attorneys from the state attorney general’s office, representing the TBI, agreed to drop the subpoena and the gag order was lifted.

Neither the TBI nor the Commercial Appeal responded to emails requesting comment.

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