U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Radio reporter ordered to testify in assault trial connected to BLM protest

Incident Details

October 18, 2021 - Update

Radio reporter compelled to testify in Wisconsin senator’s assault trial

Chali Pittman, radio journalist for WORT-FM in Wisconsin, was compelled to testify during the trial of an alleged assault of a state senator on Oct. 18, 2021, in Madison after a judge denied an appeal to quash the subpoena.

In August 2021, the Dane County district attorney subpoenaed Pittman, Isthmus senior reporter Dylan Brogan and WKOW-TV reporter Lance Veeser for their eyewitness testimony around the 2020 assault of Sen. Tim Carpenter at a Black Lives Matter protest.

Pittman, who is now news, talk and public affairs director for the station, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in 2022 that Andrew Erlandson, an attorney for Isthmus, filed an emergency appeal during a pre-trial hearing on Oct. 15, 2021, on behalf of herself and Brogan.

The Dane County circuit judge ultimately denied the motion. Erlandson told the Tracker the decision was “not a great moment for press freedom.”

Veeser filed a separate appeal, which the judge granted, quashing the subpoena. The Tracker documented that subpoena here.

August 5, 2021

Chali Pittman, a reporter and news and public affairs director for WORT-FM, was one of three journalists subpoenaed on Aug. 5, 2021, to testify at the upcoming trial of two women charged with assault in Madison, Wisconsin.

Pittman told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker the subpoena is connected to the assault of state Sen. Tim Carpenter at a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. On June 23, protesters were hostile to anyone who was filming or photographing and members of the crowd directed their ire at Carpenter when he stopped to take a photo of the demonstration, Isthmus reported at the time. A group of approximately 10 individuals then beat the senator as he attempted to identify himself.

According to a court filing in opposition to the subpoenas, the Dane County district attorney’s office issued subpoenas to Pittman, Isthmus reporter Dylan Brogan and WKOW-TV reporter Lance Veeser via mail to compel their eyewitness testimony. An attorney representing the journalists notified Assistant District Attorney Paul Humphrey they would not comply with the subpoenas as served, as they were issued improperly and violated the state’s shield law.

“The Wisconsin Legislature has enacted a reporters’ privilege law that absolutely prohibits compelling a news person to testify about confidential sources and conditionally prohibits the issuance of a subpoena compelling a news person to testify about ‘[a]ny news, information, or identity of any source of any news or information,’” the filing reads.

The district attorney’s office argued that it had been unable to identify other witnesses and therefore the journalists’ testimony is vital to the case against the defendants, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Pittman told the Tracker none of the three journalists are able to identify the individuals involved in the attack.

On Sept. 9, 2021, Judge Josann Reynolds ruled in favor of the prosecutors and granted an order compelling the three journalists to comply with the subpoenas and appear to testify starting Oct. 18, according to the Journal Sentinel.

“I have personal and professional reasons for not testifying beyond just reporter’s privilege,” Pittman said. “I work at a community radio station where I wear a lot of hats: One of them is building ties with communities who may not have always trusted community radio or had their voices well-represented in media. So testifying would make that more difficult.”

District Attorney Ismael Ozanne told the Tracker via email that his office was pleased with the ruling.

“It is my understanding the court made a very good record of the decision in this case on this matter,” Ozanne wrote. “This is not a situation in which an informant’s identity needs to be kept confidential. I don’t believe telling the truth compromises a person’s reputation.”

The reporters are considering appealing the ruling, Pittman told the Tracker, but the financial burden is daunting.

“Our lawyers told us that an appeal this time would cost about $20,000 and we’re a nonprofit radio station hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” Pittman said.

Pittman told the Tracker that if they are unable to move forward with an appeal or the appeal fails, she will comply with the subpoena.

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