UPDATE: On September 21, 2020 the City of Seattle withdrew the subpoena mentioned below. Read their statement here.
The following letter was sent to Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes by the Seattle Community Police Commission on August 17, 2020:
City Attorney Pete Holmes,
The CPC asks that your office drop its subpoena of unpublished photos and videos taken by journalists working for the Seattle Times, KOMO 4, KING 5, KIRO 7, and KCPQ 13.
This is a harrowing time for journalism. It is under threat from the Trump Administration, a devastating economic situation, and a growing belief fanned by elected officials that journalists lack independence. That would only be made worse if your office continues to fight for this subpoena.
Attempting to force journalists to hand over their unpublished work product would exacerbate this mistrust, making it harder for journalists to do their jobs. Even if the City got everything it was asking for, the benefit would likely be modest compared to the harm done to community faith in both the city and journalists would be large. This action could very well make our city less physically safe for journalists.
The CPC understands your office must walk a delicate line between enforcing the law and ensuring civil liberties are protected. However, when it comes to something so fundamental to the healthy functioning of our democracy as a free and independent press — if issuing this subpoena falls anywhere near that line, it has come too close. Damage, however incidental, to the First Amendment protections of the press should not be considered acceptable collateral damage.
The CPC is also concerned with the precedent this action could set. As you are aware, the City of Seattle has a problematic history when it comes to gathering information on protesters. In 1975, it was revealed the Seattle Police Department (SPD) had spied on hundreds of political activists, community members, and church leaders. Police complied extensive files on individuals, including photographs. Because of community advocacy, the Seattle City Council adopted the Police Intelligence Ordinance in 1979. It was the first local ordinance in the country that limited the types of information Seattle Police could gather on people exercising their First Amendment rights.
This subpoena touches on many of those same concerns. The broad nature of the subpoena would mean the police receiving protected information on many people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Rights. That’s made more problematic by the fact these protesters were protesting the police department itself. From protests to immigration and beyond, the City of Seattle has a rich history of strongly protecting information that, if left unprotected, could have a chilling effect on civil liberties. The CPC believes the pursuit of this subpoena does not align with this value.
In this once-in-a-generation economic catastrophe, the CPC does not believe the City should continue to spend tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in this way. We’ve heard calls from the protesters in the street and within our City Hall that we need to reimagine policing. The CPC urges you to heed those calls and reflect on whether this allocation of resources best serves the city; whether this truly presents the best outcome for Community.
CPC Co-Chairs Rev. Harriett Walden, Prachi Dave, Rev. Aaron Williams.