PUBLISHED:February 10, 2020

First Amendment Clinic files brief in Washington State appeal to support independent journalist

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Clinic argues that state’s Media Shield Law demands broad interpretation, includes YouTuber as member of “news media”

In early February, Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeals in Washington. The case, Brian Green v. Pierce County, concerns the interpretation of Washington’s Media Shield Law and Public Records Act.

Third-year law students Craig Jones and Bailey Cage drafted the brief under the supervision of Professor H. Jefferson Powell, the clinic director, Supervising Attorney Nicole Ligon ’16, and First Amendment Fellow Ian Kalish. Joseph Evans ’76, a solo practitioner in Bremerton, Wash., also signed on as counsel of record.

The clinic’s brief supports the respondent in his claim that as an independent journalist with his own YouTube channel, he is a member of the “news media” under Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA), which incorporates the definition of “news media” from the state’s Media Shield Law. The appeal stems from the partial denial by the state to provide information that the respondent requested about certain correctional officers in the Pierce County Jail. The county refused to provide certain records on the grounds that the respondent did not qualify as a member of the “news media.” The trial court found that the respondent’s YouTube channel fell within the statutory definition of that term.

The clinic’s brief argues that the Media Shield Law should be broadly construed to include new types of news outlets like YouTube because it is broadly written. The brief further argues that a broad construction of “news media” is essential to avoid conflicts with press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. The clinic additionally examined Washington State’s Constitution and argued that the state expressly provides even “more expansive protection than the First Amendment for individual expression,” further supporting a broad view of the right to publish in Washington.

“It is important to advocate for access to information for all journalists, whether they publish in a major newspaper or through their own YouTube channel,” Jones said of the clinic’s decision to weigh in on the case. Cage agreed: “The internet is where stories break. And because of that, it’s important that courts guard the freedom of the press, and of speech, even when it’s entirely online.”

The First Amendment Clinic’s amicus brief can be read here.