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New York Court of Appeals reverses decision to quash subpoena ordering the personal appearance of Frances Robles

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 28, 2018 – On Wednesday, in a split decision that could have a chilling effect on journalists asked to testify in criminal trials about their newsgathering efforts, the New York Court of Appeals reversed an intermediate appellate court decision quashing a subpoena directed at New York Times reporter Frances Robles.  The subpoena sought her testimony about and notes from a jailhouse interview with the defendant in the “Baby Hope” murder trial.

In September, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), along with three other organizations—The National Association of Black Journalists, The Asian-American Journalists Association, and The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting—filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Robles’ position on appeal, arguing that New York’s Shield Law protects Robles from being forced to testify about information gathered during her reporting.  The brief further argued that where, as here, the protection is lifted in the context of jailhouse interviews (which have often been an impetus for significant social change), minority communities are especially likely to suffer a loss.

Rather than address substantive issues regarding historical protections for journalists and the newsgathering process, the Court of Appeals based its decision on a procedural technicality.  The Court ruled that Robles, a non-party to the underlying case, had no right under New York’s Criminal Procedure Law to appeal the trial court’s decision ordering her to provide her testimony and notes in a criminal proceeding.  As a result, Robles (and future journalists who are ordered to testify about their newsgathering efforts) will be forced to be held in contempt of court just to bring an appeal of an adverse decision.

New York’s Shield Law explicitly provides that a journalist shall not be “adjudged in contempt by any court in connection with any civil or criminal proceeding” for refusing to disclose information that enjoys the law’s qualified privilege.  But yesterday’s decision severely curbs the protections afforded by New York’s statutory provisions and flies in the face of the state’s centuries-long tradition of protecting newsgathering.  A reporter should not have to risk being jailed for contempt to trigger appellate review of her rights.

The Court stated that it was “not unsympathetic to Robles’s policy-driven arguments” but held that the legislature had to expressly authorize the right to appeal in such situations – even though New York appellate courts have uniformly been hearing such appeals for decades.  While we disagree with the ruling of the Court of Appeals, we urge the Legislature to pass legislation immediately that will right this wrong and allow appeals like this one to move forward without requiring journalists to risk jail-time for contempt just to seek a legal ruling on their rights under the law.


About NAHJ The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) is the largest organization of Latino journalists in the United States and dedicated to the recognition and professional advancement of Hispanics in the news industry. The mission of NAHJ is to increase the number of Latinos in the newsrooms and to work toward fair and accurate representation of Latinos in news media. Established in April 1984, NAHJ created a national voice and unified vision for all Hispanic journalists. NAHJ has approximately 2,200 members, including working journalists, journalism students, other media-related professionals and journalism educators. For more information please visit or follow on Twitter @NAHJ.