U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

U.S. News subpoenaed about hospital rankings by city attorney

Incident Details

Date of Incident
January 9, 2024
Case number
4:24-cv-00395
Case Status
Ongoing
Type of case
Civil

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Institution
Legal Order Venue
State
SCREENSHOT

A portion of a subpoena issued to U.S. News & World Report on Jan. 9, 2024, ordering the news outlet to answer questions concerning its hospital rankings.

— SCREENSHOT
January 9, 2024

U.S. News & World Report was issued two subpoenas on Jan. 9, 2024, by the city attorney for San Francisco, California, seeking information about its hospital rankings and related business dealings.

For more than three decades, the digital media company has produced multiple such rankings, including its Best Hospitals Honor Roll, Best Hospitals by Specialty and Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. It also licenses out “badges” with those rankings to interested hospitals.

The subpoenas order U.S. News to answer written questions and produce documents pertaining to the rankings and U.S. News’ relationships with various health care providers.

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu first demanded answers about the media company’s process for ranking hospitals in a letter in June 2023, citing his authority under the California Business and Professions Code to investigate potentially unlawful business practices. Chiu alleged that the rankings had come under scrutiny for what he described as their “poor and opaque methodology.”

In a lawsuit filed on Jan. 23, 2024, U.S. News defended its methodology, noting that detailed reports on how the ranking is compiled are published each year. The suit requested protective orders to prevent the city attorney’s office from enforcing the subpoenas and asked that the media company be awarded attorney’s fees and costs.

“The Subpoenas make clear that the City Attorney is using governmental process to engage in viewpoint discrimination—and, indeed, is proceeding as though he holds censorial (or editorial) authority over how U.S. News performs its journalistic work ranking hospitals,” attorneys for U.S. News wrote. “It is flatly unconstitutional for the City Attorney to harass U.S. News due to his differing views on these rankings; his mounting harassment must be put to a stop.”

In a statement shared with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Chiu said it was “ironic” that U.S. News was claiming that its speech has been chilled “when the purpose of the company's lawsuit is to chill and impede a legitimate government investigation.”

“Despite U.S. News’ stated commitment to transparency, the company has spent months evading tough questions about its undisclosed financial links to the hospitals it ranks,” Chiu said. “U.S. News is not above the law, and its bullying litigation tactics will not deter us from standing up for patients and consumers.”

In its filing, however, U.S. News stated that it responded to Chiu’s initial letter — explaining its well-documented methodology and raising concerns about the potential infringement of its rights — and did not receive any additional communications from his office for nearly six months.

“The City Attorney’s actions pose a fundamental threat to our First Amendment rights and set a dangerous precedent for all media platforms and news organizations,” the lawsuit argues. It added that if Chiu's actions are allowed to stand, “any journalistic enterprise that provides analyses or opinions to the public—analyses or opinions that elected officials may wish to fault—may for that reason be subject to subpoena and investigation.”

A hearing in the case is scheduled for April 23.

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