U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Subpoena for podcast host testimony in murder case quashed

Incident Details

August 10, 2021

A San Luis Obispo County superior judge quashed a subpoena seeking testimony and reporting materials from freelance reporter and podcast host Chris Lambert during hearings around the 1996 disappearance and murder of a California Polytechnic State University student.

Lambert’s 2019 podcast, “Your Own Backyard,” chronicled his independent investigation of the murder of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart. In the span of 10 episodes, he interviewed new witnesses whom law enforcement officers had cited as “valuable” in their decision to arrest Paul Flores and his father, Ruben Flores, two longtime suspects in the case.

On Aug. 10, 2021, during preliminary hearings in the case, Paul Flores’ defense attorneys served Lambert, who was present in the courtroom covering the hearings as a member of the press, with an order to testify. The order also demanded he turn over confidential interview recordings, emails and notes gathered in the course of producing the podcast. Flores’ attorney argued Lambert had used “the cloak of a journalist” to try to influence the proceedings.

Lambert’s attorney, Diana Palacios, filed a motion to quash the order on Aug. 23, citing First Amendment privileges granted to the press as well as California’s reporters’ shield law, which protects journalists from testifying and disclosing confidential sources or unpublished materials.

On Sept. 8, San Luis Obispo County Superior Judge Craig van Rooyen, the judge overseeing the case, dismissed the subpoena. He recognized Lambert as a member of the press and agreed that both the First Amendment and the shield law protected him from testifying in the case.

Van Rooyen also recognized that the order, had it been upheld, would have been a breach of confidence.

“It is the chilling effect that the shield law means to avoid,” he said.

Lambert had been covering the preliminary hearings for his blog, “Hallway Blog,” but decided to suspend the posts until the end of the hearings.

Lambert declined a request for comment through his publicist when reached via email.

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