RCFP opposes journalist's subpoena

February 23, 2017

The greatest justification for an independent press comes when someone is challenging governmental authority, and feels their voice needs to be heard. And when a reporter goes after that story, being forced to testify against their source threatens future reporting of similar controversies -- regardless of whether the challenger is the next Patrick Henry or an angry protester at a wildlife refuge.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief opposing compelled testimony of John Sepulvado, a former reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), which was authorized by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his first week in office. Sepulvado had interviewed Ryan Bundy, one of the Malheur Natural Wildlife Refuge occupants, about the purpose of the occupation in January 2016.

Though there had been earlier contacts from prosecutors, a subpoena was finally served on Sepulvado last week. The subpoena does not limit the scope of the requested testimony. The government seeks to have Sepulvado authenticate his interview of Bundy, which would also open Sepulvado up to vigorous cross-examination by the defendants, all of whom oppose the subpoena.

Sepulvado's attorney filed a motion to quash the subpoena this week. In its brief in support of that effort, the Reporters Committee noted the jurisdiction’s long history of maintaining the confidentiality of journalists’ work product and the importance of an independent press to an informed public. The brief highlights the chilling effect that compelled testimony of confidential newsgathering information would have on future sources, and how that would affect deeply-researched stories.

The government’s reply to Sepulvado’s motion to quash is due today, and Judge Anna J. Brown will hold a hearing on the motion to quash the subpoena tomorrow.