Court strikes another blow to Constitution

Arguments for the protection of the First Amendment have made repeated appearances in this forum and most have related to the journalist’s need to remain free of governmental chains. But the Minnesota Supreme Court took a step Friday that could make that freedom a memory: it issued a decision that cuts the heart out of the 1973 Minnesota Reporters Shield Law.
The decision brings a likely end to the case involving St. Paul Pioneer Press photographer Chris Polydoroff, who witnessed and photographed a drug bust while riding with St. Paul police officers. The officers thought they were following an individual who had previously been issued a felony warrant for his arrest, but instead they pulled over Steven Turner. The officers then found three baggies of crack cocaine in Turner’s car and arrested him.
Turner’s attorney moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officers thought Turner was someone else and thus lacked reasonable cause to pull over the defendant. The defense then subpoenaed Polydoroff to testify and requested that he turn over “all notes, records, photographs or recordings” in his possession or any that he had knowledge of regarding the case.
The Pioneer Press’ publishers rightly moved to quash the subpoena because they believed Polydoroff and his unpublished materials were protected under the reporters shield law and the First Amendment. The court dismissed those arguments based on the fact that a majority of courts had ruled likewise. But multiple wrongs do not make a right.
The case, ensuing arguments and court decisions are eerily similar to those in the case of the State of Minnesota v. Kieran Knutson, in which the Daily was subpoenaed to turn over unpublished negatives that may or may not have shed light on Knutson’s claim that he struck Daniel Simmer in self-defense. Michele Ames, former Daily editor in chief, refused the court order and was placed in contempt of court. And the Daily was fined $250.
But in both instances, Polydoroff and the Daily photographer were simply doing their jobs. It’s unreasonable to expect journalists to act as agents of law enforcement. These court decisions, and related ones, leave the media vulnerable in a subtle but damaging way by threatening to sap the public trust that makes the press unique.
Off-the-record statements are sure to become a thing of the past if the legal system continues to have its way. Fierce protection of confidential sources — one of the most sacred journalistic ideals — is also nearing impossibility. The court’s decision sets a disquieting precedent, one that could threaten the sanctity and usefulness of a free press. After years of persistent chipping, the immovable rock that once was the press could become a collection of irrelevant pebbles to be kicked around at will. We can’t let that happen.
We support the Pioneer Press and other similarly threatened news outlets in what we hope will be a continued fight. Remember, all it takes is one reasonable, informed verdict to stem the tide.