U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

New Hampshire reporter subpoenaed over defamation suit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
September 25, 2023

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
Screenshot of the subpoena served on Caledonian Record reporter Robert Blechl on Sept. 25, 2023

Screenshot of the subpoena served on Caledonian Record reporter Robert Blechl on Sept. 25, 2023.

September 25, 2023

New Hampshire reporter Robert Blechl and a family-owned New England newspaper he works for were subpoenaed on Sept. 25, 2023, over Blechl’s coverage of a civil suit involving a local activist and an interstate waste management company, according to court documents reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The subpoenas, served to Blechl and the Caledonian Record, a daily covering northeastern Vermont and northern New Hampshire, were withdrawn on Oct. 6, the attorney representing them, Gregory Sullivan, told the Tracker.

According to an account by New Hampshire Public Radio, lawyers for Casella Waste Systems Inc. claimed that a May 18 article by Blechl misrepresented the settlement of its defamation suit against Jon Swan, who had been fighting a proposed landfill in New Hampshire. A review of court documents indicates the firm was seeking testimony and all of Blechl’s notes and communications with Swan related to the litigation and his May 18 report.

In a Sept. 29 affidavit describing his newsgathering, however, Blechl said that Swan had refused to speak to him about the litigation, so Blechl had relied strictly on public records.

Sullivan told the Tracker that in his Sept. 29 motion to quash the subpoenas, he argued that New Hampshire law protects the news media from having to share sources and that neither Blechl nor the Record possessed any of the information that Casella was seeking.

“It is well-settled law that requiring reporters and publishers to respond to subpoenas and to appear for depositions has a chilling effect on the news gathering and publishing processes,” Sullivan wrote in his motion. “When, as in this case, no valid basis for the subpoenas exists, the First Amendment and … the New Hampshire Constitution mandate the quashing of the issued subpoenas.”

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, while New Hampshire does not have a shield law, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has recognized a qualified constitutional privilege to protect the identity of confidential news sources.

Although the subpoenas were dropped after they were issued, Sullivan said the fact that they were instigated in the first place creates a chilling effect on the media.

“Anytime a news media organization, or one of its reporters, is subpoenaed, and it’s not a necessary subpoena, it is an unfortunate situation, certainly for the paper,” he told the Tracker. “It's a significant amount of money for a small newspaper to incur based upon what we felt were frivolous attempts to get information.”

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