The Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the state government's subpoena of an SFR staff writer's notes.
An attorney for the New Mexico Department of Health issued a subpoena last week to SFR staff writer Joey Peters, demanding that Peters hand over all notes related to correspondences he's had with former state employee Bob Ortiz since 2009 (although Peters didn't start working at SFR and covering the Ortiz story until 2011).
Ortiz accuses DOH of fraud and is suing the agency for alleged violations of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
The subpoena is a "plain abuse of power" and an "attempt at intimidation," says the SPJ statement.
"Peters and the Reporter have served as an aggressive watchdog of the Health Department and of Gov. Susana Martinez—and they recently filed suit against the state for violations of the public records law," the statement reads. "Surely the Health Department and its contract attorney realize that their weak rationale for issuing a subpoena falls far short of clearing the intentionally high hurdles set by longstanding state statutes and case law."
SFR this week filed a formal objection to the subpoena, citing that Peters reporting notes under law "are confidential except to the extent that the journalist and his employer choose to publish them."
Note: Peters is one of 11 board members on the Rio Grande Chapter of SPJ. He did not author the statement.
Read SPJ's statement in full:
SPJ Chapter Condemns DOH Subpoena of Reporter’s Notes
Contact: Chapter President Laura Paskus, (505) 217-5136
Journalists’ communications with sources are protected to ensure the free flow of information that allows journalists to perform their essential functions in a democratic society: to give people the information they need to participate in the political process—and to hold those in power accountable for their actions.
That is why the Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists strongly opposes the New Mexico Department of Health’s attempt through subpoena to lay hands on Santa Fe Reporter journalist Joey Peters’ communications with a source and, worse, to also obtain Peters’ reporter’s notes.
The Health Department wants Peters’ communications with Bob Ortiz, a former employee of the department who is now suing the state for alleged violations of the Whistleblower Protection Act. Peters and the Reporter have published a number of stories about Ortiz’s allegations.
The subpoena is a plain abuse of power. Should the Health Department succeed in its baseless attempt at prying loose privileged correspondence and newsgathering methods, it could further chill an already frosty environment in which fewer and fewer sources are willing to come forward with information that is important to the public in this state. Indeed, this has the potential to set a very dangerous precedent.
Futhermore, the subpoena appears to be an attempt at intimidation. Peters and the Reporter have served as an aggressive watchdog of the Health Department and of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration—and they recently filed suit against the state for violations of the public records law.
Surely the Health Department and its contract attorney realize that their weak rationale for issuing the subpoena falls far short of clearing the intentionally high hurdles set by longstanding statutes and case law. Those hurdles require the government to exhaust all other avenues of obtaining the information it seeks before taking the brazen step of getting that information from a journalist. That obviously has not happened in this case. Moreover, it is not the job of a newsgathering organization to assist the government in defending itself against lawsuits.
The Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter stands shoulder to shoulder with the Reporter in calling on the Health Department to withdraw its subpoena and abandon its attempt at circumventing the laws protecting journalists’ communications with sources.
This statement was written by the Rio Grande SPJ Chapter’s Freedom of Information Committee: Gwyneth Doland, Heath Haussamen, Bryant Furlow, Jeff Proctor, Peter St. Cyr and Joey Peters. Although he is a member of the committee, Peters was not involved in the writing of this statement. Doland is a former SFR staffer; St. Cyr and Proctor are occasional contributors to the newspaper; Haussamen is the deputy director of New Mexico In Depth, which has a media partnership with SFR.