U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Spokesman-Review editor subpoenaed for information about agreement with Spokane sheriff

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 21, 2021
Spokane, Washington

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
Screen Shot 2023-01-26 at 3.32.23 PM

A portion of the subpoena issued to The Spokesman-Review Executive Editor Rob Curley, on May 21, 2021, seeking testimony and documents during a defamation lawsuit in Spokane, Washington.

May 21, 2021

A Washington state Court of Appeals ruled on Jan. 10, 2023, that the state’s shield law protected a Spokesman-Review editor and the outlet from complying with subpoenas seeking testimony and documents as part of a defamation lawsuit. However, the 3-member panel ruled that some information sought from Executive Editor Rob Curley was not protected by reporter’s privilege.

The decision stemmed from a 2019 lawsuit filed by a Spokane sheriff’s deputy who was found to be wrongfully terminated after an internal investigation accused him of using a racial slur and harassment while on duty.

The Spokesman-Review was first subpoenaed on Nov. 25, 2019 for testimony and documents connected to an arrangement between the outlet and the Spokane sheriff’s office to delay coverage of the internal investigation until it was completed. In 2021, the sheriff testified in a deposition about the agreement, naming Executive Editor Curley. The Tracker documented the newspaper’s November 2019 subpoena here.

According to The Spokesman-Review, Curley was subpoenaed on May 21, 2021 for testimony and documents related to the agreement. In June 2021, the outlet filed a motion to quash the subpoenas and for a protective order to prevent any violation of the state’s shield law and protect the newspaper’s First Amendment rights. The trial court partially granted the protective order in September, limiting who would need to respond to the subpoenas while allowing the request for documents and deposition of Curley. The newspaper filed for an emergency stay, or suspension, of the motion, and in November, the Appeals Court agreed to the review.

In their 2023 decision to uphold the lower court’s partial granting and partial denial of the subpoenas, the three appellate judges wrote that state law protected Curley and the outlet from revealing privileged conversations and documents around any agreements. The court agreed, however, that the dates and times of any agreements made between Curley and the sheriff’s office were not protected by shield law. The ruling did not specify a date for providing information about the agreements.

Spokesman-Review Attorney Casey Bruner told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in an emailed statement that the newspaper was satisfied with the court’s ruling.

Bruner wrote that the decision protected and clarified the state shield law. “We believe the decision is beneficial not just to the Spokesman-Review but to all reporters in the state and is a step in the right direction for protecting the freedom of the press.”

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