Unquashed: Judge upholds subpoena of reporter

New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 12 weeks in jail for refusing to testify about a confidential source when she was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Now, the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney's office has subpoenaed a Hook reporter to testify about a public drunkenness case with no confidential sources or heinous crime to be solved, and a judge's refusal to quash the subpoena has turned a misdemeanor case into a First Amendment challenge.

Hook reporter Courteney Stuart appeared before Judge William Barkley today with a motion to dismiss her subpoena to testify about a case she'd reported on in the October 11 issue of the Hook. "I cover crime," Stuart told the judge. "This is drunk in public– a minor crime. This week I'm also covering a capital murder. Am I to be called to testify in every crime I cover?"

Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Claude Worrell argued that Stuart should be on hand to "reply to any discrepancies" in the testimony of witnesses in the case. "We're not asking her to disclose any confidential sources," said Worrell, sidestepping the issue of privilege reporters routinely invoke.

"This interferes with my ability to do my job and violates my First Amendment rights," Stuart told Barkley– to no avail. He denied Stuart's motion, saying it's premature to quash her subpoena 10 days before the November 29 trial, but he said that Stuart could raise the issue again.

The charges stem from the September 28 arrest of Richard Silva and his fiancee, Blair Austin, who were charged with public swearing and intoxication. In addition, Austin was charged with obstruction of justice, also a misdemeanor. The couple– and their friends who witnessed their encounter with Charlottesville Police Officer Mike Flaherty– allege that Flaherty so violently knocked Austin to the ground that the friends called 911 to report him. Stuart was not a witness to the arrest.

"I believe the police should be doing their own investigation," says Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead, whose civil liberties organization has offered to represent Stuart. Virginia, he says, recognizes only two exceptions to First Amendment protections of the press: If the state needs a reporter's testimony to solve a crime ("That doesn't seem to be true here as there are other witnesses," says Whitehead) or if the defendant needs it to prove his innocence.

As for calling a reporter to testify in a misdemeanor case, "I don't agree with it," says Whitehead. "You just don't mess with the press. You don't want reporters to feel intimidated, philosophically. And Constitutionally it's a problem."

"I think it's frightening," says Stuart. "If the Commonwealth wants to use journalists to trap people on the stand, it's an outrage."

"What I find startling is that taxpayer money is being used in the Commonwealth's Attorney's office for such a low-level case," says Hook editor Hawes Spencer. "It certainly gives the appearance of desperation in the office."

8 comments

I'll tell you why. Because the cop she embarrassed in her story is a veteran officer and this thing stinks bad. Just my impression. The police here do a good job but they have no tolerance for small irritations. Sometimes people who move here from larger cities - or even visit from Lynchburg! - get caught in their weird fury. Friendly one minute, very upset the next.

Speaking as a journalist who was subpeonaed by the feds in 2002, little in this story makes sense.

1. Why does it appear the reporter was in court representing herself?
2. Why would the judge sidestep her argument and decide it is too early to quash a subpeona?
3. How in the world would her testimony be allowed since she was not there and didn't witness the arrest? That's hearsay.

There should be plenty of lawyers in Charlottesvegas drooling over this who would take up your case for free. Please get one quickly and take care of this rather than risk setting a bad precedent.

You should also contact U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher's office.

"eventually we'll have another springtime Foxfield every weekend downtown."

That would be so awesome and so Charlottesville. A steeplechase down the Downtown Mall. The horses could jump over the train people!

On mildly related note, I saw three bike cops down by the Regal Cinema just being absolute bullies to a teenage kid hanging out at the Mudhouse who was apparently being too "loud." To my eyes and ears, the kid just appeared to be acting like a kid, and these three goons on bikes just started berating him.
It gave me no faith in the department.

This is really stupid of the commonwealth attorney but at least the Hook finally got a nice picture of Courteney.

Welcome to Charlottesville, Dave.

What's the largest street gang in America?

hint: They wear blue and their mommy dresses them all alike.

quote John Whitehead: "You don't want reporters to feel intimidated, philosophically. And Constitutionally it's a problem."

Yeah, the local criminal justice system would never attempt to intimidate anybody.

Perhaps people need to find a candidate to run against the city commonwealth attorney. It can be done. Jim Camblos is living proof of this. People got fed up with his foolishness.

'¢Ã¢â??¬Ã?â??What I find startling is that taxpayer money is being used in the Commonwealth's Attorney's office for such a low-level case,¢Ã¢â??¬ says Hook editor Hawes Spencer.'
It's interesting that he doesn't seem to be concerned about Constitutional rights of the press just the fact that tax payers' money is being used to prosecute public drunkenness. If this kind of behavior continues, eventually we'll have another springtime Foxfield every weekend downtown.