U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Pennsylvania judge denies energy company’s subpoena of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 25, 2019

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A notice of deposition to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Don Hopey, one of three people in the newsroom to ordered to turn over work product, stemming from the paper's request to unseal a private settlement.

— Screenshot
February 25, 2019

Staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were subpoenaed in February 2019 by Range Resources while reporting around a confidential settlement between the gas-drilling company and Pennsylvania residents. On May 3, a Washington County judge quashed the requests for testimony, sources, notes and documents from former Post-Gazette reporter Don Hopey and two other journalists.

Beginning in January, the Post-Gazette sought to unseal an August 2018 settlement between Range and families who alleged they had experienced serious health problems due to exposure to leaks, spills and air pollution emanating from a nearby company well. Range fought the outlet’s petition, claiming the request was not timely.

Range lawyers subpoenaed Hopey, reporter David Templeton and former Managing Editor Sally Stapleton on Feb. 25 to uncover the reporters’ sources and obtain their notes and documents related to the case, the Post-Gazette reported. The outlet entered its objection to all three subpoenas on March 11, according to the court docket.

In her May ruling quashing the subpoenas, Washington County Common Pleas Court President Judge Katherine Emery cited Pennsylvania’s shield law and its protection of news sources.

“The Shield Law must be liberally construed in favor of the news media,” Emery wrote in her order and opinion. “Under this law, the employees of the newspaper cannot be required to disclose any information that could lead to the disclosure of their sources.”

The Post-Gazette also asked Emery to order Range to cover the newspaper’s legal fees, calling the subpoenas “a brazen and legally abusive attempt to harass and intimidate the Post-Gazette.” Emery denied that request.

In a related incident, the same judge barred Pittsburgh-based reporter Reid Frazier from directly or indirectly publishing contents of the settlement terms on May 30, which the reporter had inadvertently obtained from a glitch in the court’s software. On June 4, Range told Emery it would publicly release the settlement terms, Frazier reported, effectively ending the Post-Gazette’s court action to unseal it and the publishing injunction. Read more on the prior restraint here.

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