Washington Post journalist subpoenaed for documents from college reporting

April 22, 2021

Journalist Fenit Nirappil was subpoenaed on April 22, 2021, in a lawsuit involving former Chicago police officers for documents related to his work on two stories for the Medill Innocence Project nearly a decade earlier, according to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

Nirappil, now a journalist for The Washington Post, was a part of a team of Northwestern University students who investigated the conviction of former police officer Ariel Gomez during the 2011-2012 academic year, according to RCFP, which is representing Nirappil. RCFP is a partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The subpoena was issued by Chicago-based Sotos Law Firm on behalf of four law enforcement officers and officials who are defendants in a federal lawsuit Gomez is pursuing alleging misconduct related to his conviction.

The officers’ legal team sought a broad range of documents from Nirappil related to his undergraduate education, according to a letter RCFP senior attorney Sarah Matthews wrote in response to the subpoena. Matthews is a member of the Tracker’s advisory committee.

Matthews argued in the letter that Nirappil isn’t required to comply with the subpoena, citing First Amendment privilege for journalists.

She also wrote that the subpoena was invalid due to procedural rules. It was improperly served because it was sent through the mail, rather than personally served, she wrote.

The subpoena was also overly broad, including requests for records related to 49 individuals, according to the letter. Matthews wrote that it effectively sought all information related to Nirappil’s undergraduate education.

The subpoena requested Nirappil’s documents by May 5 — an “insufficient” amount of time to reply given the scope of the request, and that he only received the subpoena on May 1, Matthews wrote.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, if the subject of a subpoena for documents files an objection within a certain window of time, they don’t need to comply with the subpoena, according to Matthews.

She told the Tracker Nirappil wasn’t under any further obligation to respond, unless the attorneys representing the Chicago police officers file a motion in court.

Nirappil didn’t respond to a request for comment. He posted on Twitter about the subpoena on May 10.

“I'm not going to roll over when attorneys for law enforcement come after my reporting notes, even if they were from college a decade ago,” he wrote.

Sotos Law Firm also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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

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