CALIFORNIA — Subpoenas served against three high school journalists by the family of a classmate who killed herself were withdrawn earlier this week.
Saratoga High School students Samuel Liu, Sabrina Chen and Cristina Curcelli received their subpoenas Aug. 19 — the first day of school — when they arrived at their journalism class.
In April, the students published a story that quoted anonymous sources about a classmate’s September suicide in The Saratoga Falcon. Sophomore Audrie Pott’s parents have said she killed herself after being sexually assaulted at a party by three male classmates who photographed the incident and shared the pictures with others.
The three boys have been charged with sexual battery and distributing child pornography along with two other felony charges, the Falcon reported.
The Falcon’s stories looked at students’ reaction to the national media attention the case has garnered. According to the students’ article, many professional media accounts about Pott reported that the photos of her went “‘viral’ among students at the school.
The student journalists didn’t find that to be true, however, writing in an April 2013 article that “several students familiar with the situation have said that they think roughly 10 people saw them, and that the photos never went on Facebook.” Falcon reporters talked with dozens of students who had not seen the photos.
Liu also published a piece titled “Opinion: Pott case twisted to fit anti-cyberbullying agenda” that was cited, along with the April article, in the subpoenas filed by Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard LLP, who represent the Pott family. The family has filed a wrongful death suit against the parents at whose home the party was held, as well as the boys accused of assaulting her and a female classmate the parents say witnessed the incident.
The family has also filed a claim against the school district over how it handled allegations that Pott was being bullied in spring of 2012, as well as for “using the Falcon newspaper to survey the school to search for viral pictures,” the Falcon reported in May.
The records sought under the subpoena included e-mails, interview notes and contact information for the student journalists’ sources.
The students contacted the Student Press Law Center for information after receiving the subpoenas. Guylyn Cummins of the San Diego office of Sheppard Mullin, the attorney representing the students pro bono as a member of the SPLC’s volunteer attorney referral network, served objections to the students’ subpoenas Aug. 20.
In her letter to Robert Allard, Cummins argued that the students “were never properly served with the [s]ubpoenas” and that “California’s news shield affords journalists a constitutional immunity against contempt that cannot be pierced in a civil lawsuit.” She added that journalists have “additional protection as a privilege” under the First Amendment.
This week, Cummins said she received communication that indicated the subpoenas were withdrawn, but may be reevaluated later.
Staff at Allard’s office would not comment on the subpoenas except to say that “right now it’s a moot point.”
Liu and Chen said they were relieved about the withdrawal and thankful for the support they received.
Curcelli said student journalists caught in a similar situation should know their resources and their rights.
“That’s a big thing,” Curcelli said. “We have shield laws protecting us just like any other reporters.”
In California, reporters are protected by a state shield law that says no one “connected with or employed upon a newspaper” can be found in contempt for refusing to turn over their sources or unpublished information. Every state except Wyoming has a reporter shield, but the scope of who is covered varies by state. Congress is now debating whether to enact a reporter’s privilege that will apply in federal courts, and a key unresolved issue is whether unpaid journalists will receive protection.
By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.