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Judge orders review of Seattle protest news photos sought by police; news outlets will appeal

Lewis Kamb, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE -- A King County judge revised his ruling from last week, ordering Friday that either he or a special master first will conduct a closed-door review of five Seattle news outlets' unpublished protest photos and videos before deciding whether any should be turned over to Seattle police for an ongoing criminal investigation.

Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee said he added the provision for the review of the news images -- taken during a protest May 30 downtown by journalists for The Seattle Times and TV stations KIRO, KING, KOMO and KCPQ -- after grappling with his July 23 oral ruling that the media outlets must comply with a police subpoena.

Despite the revisions, Seattle Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores said the media parties to the case are "disappointed with Judge Lee's ruling and we will be filing an appeal.

"While we appreciate the judge's addition of an intermediary -- possibly himself -- to review the material and select what to hand to the police -- we strongly believe this decision poses a risk to the independence of the media and to the safety of photojournalists," Matassa Flores said.

Police contend the raw news photos and footage, taken during a 1 1/2-hour period when violence erupted during the protests, may help identify several suspects who torched five Seattle Police Department vehicles and stole two police guns.

The judge's ruling last week that the media had to turn over the images drew widespread criticism from national civil rights and press freedom groups, local and national news organizations and several Seattle City Council members, among others.


Lee's final written order, entered Friday after hearings about it spanned parts of two days, gives media outlets 21 days to appeal and obtain a stay to his order. If they don't, the news outlets must turn over all unpublished photos and video footage captured by their photojournalists' news cameras between 3:30 and 5 p.m. on May 30, in the area between Olive Way and Pike Street, from Fourth to Sixth avenues.

The court estimates the private review will take up to 10 days, with either the judge or a special master to determine if any images depict individuals involved in the arsons and thefts under investigation, according to the order. Images meeting such criteria would be given to police, which could use them only for the arson and theft cases.

The review also could determine "nothing gets turned over to the Seattle Police Department," Lee said, explaining he aimed "to add another layer of scrutiny" to allay concerns about government intrusion on free speech rights.

Eric Stahl, a lawyer for the media groups, raised no objections with the review, but told the judge: "My clients still feel the decision is wrong ... and could put journalists on the ground at risk."


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