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Phoenix loses ‘retaliatory’ effort to obtain ABC15’s raw reporting

Posted at 1:49 PM, Dec 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 19:49:45-05

PHOENIX — The City of Phoenix has lost a legal effort to obtain ABC15’s raw reporting.

It was an attempt that the news station’s attorneys and outside experts call a retaliatory and troubling attack on the First Amendment.

“They’re trying to go after the messenger instead of being concerned about the message,” said Dan Shelley, Executive Director of the Radio Television Digital News Association. “That rings all sorts of alarm bells. Every citizen in Phoenix should be alarmed this is going on.”

On November 19, federal Magistrate Judge Eileen Willett denied Phoenix’s bid to force ABC15 to turn over raw footage from a pair of interviews.

Outside attorneys hired by the city filed a motion to compel in early October after ABC15 objected to a subpoena earlier this year.

Phoenix wanted “full and complete, unedited copies” of ABC15's investigative interviews with Frances Salazar and her attorneys.

Salazar is suing the City of Phoenix and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for wrongful prosecution. Police and prosecutors unconstitutionally withheld records and information about her arresting officer’s history of dishonesty.

Salazar spent nearly two years in prison before a judge ordered her release.

ABC15 reported extensively on Salazar’s lawsuit as part of the station’s Full Disclosure investigation, which highlighted repeated failures by police and prosecutors to maintain so-called Brady lists.

ABC15 attorneys, David Bodney and Matthew Kelley, argued that the city’s subpoenas appeared to be retaliation for the station's reporting.

As part of Full Disclosure, ABC15 published the first-ever statewide database of Brady list officers. Months later, the station aired another series of reports titled Politically Charged that exposed Phoenix police colluded with prosecutors to falsely charge protesters exercising their First Amendment rights as members of a fictional gang.

ABC15’s reporting played a role in prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to open a sweeping pattern-of-practice investigation into the Phoenix Police Department.

“There is a credible case to be made that this is retaliatory in nature what the city is doing, what the police department is doing, to try to subpoena your unused video to try and mount a defense against these claims in this particular case,” Shelley said.

Other experts agreed and said they considered Phoenix’s attempt to obtain ABC15’s raw footage as a move to discourage people from speaking to the news station.

“It could have a chilling effect going forward on a journalist’s or news organization’s work,” said Kathryn Gardner, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

She added, “People who come forward with important information that needs to be made public really rely on that confidential relationship with the media.”

Protections for news organizations under the First Amendment, federal law, and Arizona state statutes are strong. They protect media outlets from producing unpublished reporting, except in rare circumstances.

As of November 10, the city said it paid outside attorneys more than $3,400 to try and obtain ABC15’s raw interviews.

On October 22, Phoenix City Manager Jeff Barton declined a request for an interview through a spokesperson.

The city sent ABC15 the following emailed statement:

“The City’s attorneys’ request for the unredacted interview is not, nor should it be construed, as any attempt to interfere with the important jobs of gathering, writing, publishing, broadcasting and disseminating news to the public as protected by the First Amendment.”

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.