Seattle Times executive editor Michele Matassa Flores pushed back on a judge’s ruling that the paper and four other Seattle news organizations must give police unpublished photos and video footage of riots in the city.
Police had sought reporters’ footage of a May 30 riot that stemmed from a George Floyd protest, during which vandals smashed windows of and set fire to police vehicles — and stole various pieces of equipment, including two firearms that remain unaccounted for. The violence led Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan to impose a curfew, and Washington governor Jay Inslee activated National Guard troops in the event that the riots continued.
King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee ruled on Thursday morning that the footage was critical to police investigations of arson and theft. However, Lee also limited the footage police could obtain to that recorded on professional camera equipment, not reporters’ cell phones. Police will also be forbidden from using the footage as evidence in any investigation except for arson and theft of police property.
The police will not be permitted to use the footage to investigate lesser crimes like vandalism, even if the footage includes evidence of such activity. The footage would apply to a 90-minute span of the riot covering an area of about four blocks.
“The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public,” Flores said of the ruling. “We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover.” Flores also alleged that the ruling could put “even our staff’s physical safety” in danger.
National Review has reached out to the Seattle Times for additional comment.
New York Times correspondent Mike Baker, who is based in the Pacific northwest and has been covering the ongoing riots in Portland, Ore., also condemned the ruling.
“This kind of ruling puts journalists in danger,” Baker wrote on Twitter. “Protesters are often wary of having media outlets in their midst. Journalists need the independence, or they will otherwise be viewed as an arm of law-enforcement surveillance.”
Law enforcement requests for footage taken by reporters are not without precedent. Daily Caller editor Geoffrey Ingersoll wrote on Twitter that the FBI “directly and bluntly” asked reporters from the outlet for footage of a 2017 brawl in Charlottesville, N.C., in which “a group of neo nazis pummeled a young black man in a parking garage.”
“Four of the people identified in videos of the beating were sentenced to prison,” Ingersoll noted.
Since the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed during arrest by Minneapolis officers, demonstrations against police brutality have erupted across the U.S. However, some of those demonstrations devolved into mass rioting and looting during the last weekend of May.
Seattle saw the establishment of a six-block “autonomous zone” by protesters after police evacuated the city’s sixth precinct building. That protest was dispersed following a series of shootings in the area, and businesses in the zone have sued the city for its “decision to abandon and close off an entire city neighborhood.”