U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Protecting reporter’s privilege, even after death

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Published On
September 30, 2022
A graph showing a snapshot of press freedom violations as documented by the Tracker so far this year.

A snapshot of press freedom violations as documented by the Tracker so far in 2022.

— U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Friends of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

Welcome back to your monthly newsletter around press freedom violations in the United States. Find archived editions here, and get this newsletter direct in your inbox by signing up here.

‘One journalist’s death is too many’

As September opened, we learned the sad news that Las Vegas Review-Journal journalist Jeff German had been found stabbed to death outside his home. Early news reports cited senseless violence.

Within a week, sadness morphed into shock as Las Vegas police arrested and charged local county official Robert Telles with the murder of the highly respected investigative reporter. German had written a series of investigative reports on Telles, who later lost his bid for re-election. The next hearing for Telles, who is currently being held without bail, is in October.

Before the death of German the Tracker had documented 5 journalists killed, all in 2018.

Protecting posthumous reporter’s privilege

As part of the murder investigation, Las Vegas authorities seized a cellphone, four computers and a hard drive from German’s home. This week, the Review-Journal filed a protective order to prevent authorities from searching those devices, arguing they are protected under Nevada’s shield law and reporter’s privilege.

“The Review-Journal appreciates the efforts of law enforcement to investigate the murder of Mr. German, and of all those seeking to ensure that justice is done for this horrific crime,” the motion states. “However, the newspaper has serious and urgent concerns about the protection of confidential sources and other unpublished journalistic work product contained in the Seized Devices.”

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Tracker partner, filed an amicus brief signed by more than 40 news and press freedom organizations, encouraging the judge in this week’s hearing to grant the Review-Journal’s request to protect the seized equipment.

For now, the protective order — as well as any searching of German’s devices — is on hold after the judge said she didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear arguments.

When interviewed by Voice of America about the death of German, I made it clear that even one death is one too many: “Steps need to be taken, McCudden said, including creating more awareness of the rhetorical and physical attacks journalists face — including from politicians — and efforts to restrict reporting and generally intimidate them.”

Without a doubt, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is an indispensable part of raising that awareness. (You can quote me on that, too.)

© LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL, Inc. (2021), used with permission

Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative journalist Jeff German, photographed on Las Vegas’ Strip in 2021, was found stabbed to death outside his home this month. His news outlet is working to protect the devices seized during the investigation into his murder.

— © LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL, Inc. (2021), used with permission

Spotlight: Student Journalists

  • For student journalists, protections of their newsgathering rights vary by state. Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, said that California has the oldest law protecting students’ First Amendment rights in the country. He told the Tracker that he was befuddled then, when school administrators at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Lake Balboa suspended the journalism advisor for refusing to censor her students’ work. Advisor Adriana Chavira’s suspension was rescinded on Sept. 16 after an outpouring of support from press freedom advocates, including the father of the slain journalist for whom the school is named. After the suspension was lifted Chavira tweeted that she was proud of her students for holding their ground: “The district should never have attempted to censor my students and discipline me.”
  • In Nebraska, a high school student newspaper and related class were shuttered by school administrators earlier this year after student journalists featured LGBTQ content in their May issue. ACLU of Nebraska issued a letter to the district superintendent, calling the elimination of the Grand Island Viking Saga an infringement on the student’s constitutional rights. The paper or class hasn’t been reinstated yet, marking the first time the award-winning Saga hasn't published since 1968.
  • In September 2020, Pablo Unzueta was a student photojournalist for the Daily 49er, the Cal State Long Beach newspaper, covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles when he was arrested and assaulted, and his equipment seized by law enforcement. On Sept. 18, 2022 — almost exactly two years later — the Los Angeles County Board of Claims approved a $90,000 payment to settle his lawsuit against the county, its Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

Tracker Outreach

With Hispanic Heritage Month beginning on Sept. 15, it’s a great time to highlight our continued effort to connect with all journalists and newsrooms across the country. Find the Tracker’s About page, FAQ page and Tips submission portal now also in Spanish.

As a newsletter subscriber, you can reply to this email to connect with me or share it to keep raising awareness about press freedom issues in the U.S. A donation also supports our work.

Until next month.

Kirstin McCudden
Managing Editor, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker