U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Ohio prosecutor subpoenas outlet for reporting materials from protest

Incident Details

Date of Incident
June 5, 2020
Cleveland, Ohio

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

A Cleveland, Ohio, police officer blocks a road to the city after a mandatory lockdown on June 1, 2020, after days of protests and riots followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis.

— REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
April 11, 2024 - Update

Ohio county prosecutor drops pursuit of paper’s unpublished protest coverage

An Ohio prosecutor did not pursue his subpoena for unpublished content from Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer after it shared already-published reporting of May 2020 protests there, Editor Chris Quinn confirmed to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in April 2024.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley’s office subpoenaed The Plain Dealer and its website, cleveland.com, in June 2020. The subpoena sought all recordings and photographs from protests against police brutality that depicted any “potential criminal activity,” as well as any recorded interviews with individuals who may have described illegal activities.

Quinn expressed alarm at the time, saying that such subpoenas could put a target on the backs of reporters, photographers and videographers while doing their jobs documenting protests. He added that journalists are not part of the criminal justice process but rather its watchdogs.

When reached by email in 2024, Quinn said they only shared reporting published by the outlet and that the prosecutor’s office did not pursue the unpublished content.

“I think part of the reason was that they received plenty of materials from elsewhere to find what they wanted, and part of the reason was that they did not want to have a fight with us over something like this,” Quinn wrote the Tracker.

He added that they have a decent relationship with the prosecutor’s office and are typically able to “work things out without conflict.”

June 5, 2020

Ohio newspaper The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and its digital site, cleveland.com, were served a subpoena by the county prosecutor’s office for videos, photos and audio captured by its reporters during recent protests in downtown Cleveland.

Protests have taken place in dozens of cities across the country since late May, sparked by a video showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, during an arrest. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

The subpoena, filed on June 5, 2020 by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley’s office, orders the outlet to turn over all recordings and photographs that depict any “potential criminal activity” during the May 30 riots, cleveland.com reported.

It also seeks copies of any recorded interviews with individuals who may have described illegal activities.

Editor Chris Quinn told cleveland.com in an emailed statement that the company is compiling responsive documents before speaking with its attorneys about possible options, but that it intends to turn over all materials already published, as the outlet has done previously.

“I’m always troubled when prosecutors seek to use the work of journalists as evidence in criminal cases because it sends a terrible message to criminals that journalists should be considered part of the criminal justice process,” Quinn said.

“We are not part of the criminal justice process. We are the watchdog of the criminal justice process. I just fear that this kind of thing puts a target on the backs of our reporters, photographers and videographers as they do their jobs.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented many assaults of journalists amid the ongoing protests related to Black Lives Matter and police brutality, and at least a dozen journalists who have been assaulted by private individuals. In many of these instances, journalists reported being harassed for capturing video or photos of demonstrators’ faces.

Cleveland.com reported that Cuyahoga County Prosecutor spokesman Tyler Sinclair declined to comment on the subpoena or whether similar subpoenas have been issued to other news outlets, citing the ongoing investigation. Sinclair did not immediately respond to the Tracker’s request for comment.

Ohio shield law protects journalists from disclosing their confidential sources, but this protection does not extend to journalistic work product gathered in the course of reporting, according to the Digital Media Law project.

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