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Amnesty International Sources Given Journalistic Protection

Amnesty International Sources Given Journalistic Protection

A New York federal judge held that sources used by Amnesty International (Amnesty) in drafting a report on conditions of confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York were entitled to the same protection as journalistic sources.

The district court’s ruling occurred in a lawsuit against MDC officials over the monitoring of attorney-client meetings at MDC. The suit was filed by MDC detainees who had been arrested in a sweep of “suspects” following the 9-11 attacks.

The defendants in the case had issued broad subpoenas to the New York Times and Amnesty seeking information, recordings and documents related to their conversations with the plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ lawyers, as well as any research materials used in preparing articles and reports on conditions at MDC.

The defendants claimed they needed this information to prove that the plaintiffs knew about the monitoring of the attorney-client meetings so long ago that the three-year statute of limitations would bar their suit. The Times filed a motion for a protective order.

Amnesty disclosed some information with the permission of one plaintiff, but declared the rest confidential and objected to its production. The defendants filed a motion to compel testimony and production of documents.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Viktor V. Pohorelsky held that the information requested from the Times was not confidential because the Times had not guaranteed its sources confidentiality. Nonetheless, the defendants failed to show that the requested information was related to the issue of when the plaintiffs knew about the alleged monitoring.

With regard to the one issue of how Times reporter Nina Bernstein understood a lawyer’s reference to being “under the eye of a prison video camera,” the judge allowed that discovery request to stand. The court referred to the rest of the requests as an invalid “effort to sift through press files in search of information supporting claims,” which was denied.

Initially, the defendants claimed Amnesty was not entitled to journalistic source privilege. They abandoned that position after Amnesty described how it gathered information and produced and published reports. The defendants then claimed that Amnesty’s partial production waived any privilege for the remainder of the requested documents. The court disagreed, holding that partial production can waive privilege for parties who partially withhold information to gain an advantage, but Amnesty was not a party and gained no advantage through partial production.

Further, all of the requested information, except that regarding the plaintiff who gave permission for disclosure, was confidential and subject to a very high standard before Amnesty could be forced to reveal its sources. The district court held the defendants had “not even come close” to meeting that standard, which required that the information be highly material and relevant, necessary or critical to the maintenance of the claim, and unavailable from other sources. The defendants did, however, have the right to know the name and address of a lawyer who had assured the plaintiff who agreed to disclosure that the attorney-client meetings were not being audio recorded.

The defendants’ motion to compel was denied and the plaintiffs’ motions for protective orders were granted except as indicated above. The ruling is available on PLN’s website; note that this case is still pending. See: Lonegan v. Hasty, U.S.D.C. (ED NY), Case No. CV-04-2743(NG)(VVP); 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158 (E.D.N.Y. 2008).

Additional source: USA Today

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Related legal case

Lonegan v. Hasty