Is a YouTuber part of the news media? State Supreme Court Provides Guidance in Recent Ruling
Alexis Krell / The News Tribune
The case of a man with a YouTube channel who searched for Pierce County records after a courthouse confrontation prompted a Washington State Supreme Court opinion regarding the definition of ‘news media’ .
The man, Brian Green, searched public records for his Libertys Champion YouTube channel, including photos and birth dates of jail workers and sheriff’s deputies on duty at the time of the confrontation. These photos and dates of birth are exempt from public disclosure under state law, but journalists are entitled to them.
Green sued Pierce County over the records, and Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christopher Lanese ruled that Green and his YouTube channel were considered “new media.” Pierce County appealed.
The High Court decision overturned Lanese’s decision.
“We conclude that the statutory definition of ‘news media’ requires an entity with a separate legal identity from the individual,” Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis wrote for the majority in the 7-2 opinion on Thursday. “Here, Brian Green has not proven that he or the Libertys Champion YouTube channel meets the legal definition of ‘news media’ and, therefore, he is not entitled to the exempt recordings.”
The opinion also acknowledged that the media landscape has changed dramatically since the state law defining news media was written 14 years ago.
“The way we access information today is vastly different from how we did in 2007, and this statutory definition may not correspond to today’s intersection of social media and news,” said writes Montoya-Lewis. “However, the legislature, not the court, is responsible for enacting laws, and that court is bound by the unambiguous language of the law.”
Judges Steven González, Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens, Debra Stephens and Mary Yu signed the notice.
Court records give this account of the public record dispute:
Green and another person drove to the County-City Building on Nov. 26, 2014, in downtown Tacoma to pay a parking ticket and drop something off.
At security, a guard asked to search the other person’s bag, and that person refused, then began filming when a sheriff’s deputy arrived.
The deputy gave Green and the other person two options to avoid a bag search: leave with the bag or enter the courthouse without it. They refused, arguing that the County-City Building is public, and the person with the bag argued that his right to privacy was violated.
“The conversation escalated and the deputy asked the men to leave,” Montoya-Lewis wrote. “When Green stood too close to him, the deputy pushed Green and knocked him backwards to the floor. The deputy arrested Green for criminal obstruction and took him to jail.”
He was released the next day and the prosecutor’s office dismissed the charge.
It was several years later that Green requested records from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, requesting photos, birth dates, ranks, positions, badge numbers, hire dates and badges. identification cards for detention center staff, prison staff and “deputies on duty on November 26″. and 27, 2014.”
He sent his request from his group’s email address and referred to himself as an “investigative journalist” in the email signature.
The agency responded with 11 pages of documents, but said photos and dates of birth were exempt from disclosure.
Green argued that he was entitled to those recordings because he met the definition of “news media” under state law. He said he covered local court cases on his channel and the channel had around 6,000 subscribers.
The trial court sided with Green and “concluded that the statutory definition of ‘news media’ does not require a specific form of business or financial profit,” Montoya-Lewis wrote. “He also noted that the Libertys Champion YouTube channel has been around for several years and posts videos about every week for the purpose of gathering and disseminating information.”
The majority of the Supreme Court overturned the trial court’s decision and found that Green and his YouTube channel did not qualify as “news media” within the meaning of the law.
Justices G. Helen Whitener and Sheryl Gordon McCloud dissented.
“From a First Amendment perspective, distinguishing between different news organizations based on their size, organizational structure, or status as a legal entity is disadvantaged, if not outright impermissible,” Whitener wrote. “To hold that (state law) provides otherwise, as the majority does, risks interpreting the law unconstitutionally, an outcome we must avoid.”
She wrote that all Green would have to do to qualify, given the majority interpretation of the law, is register a limited liability company.
“If the legislator wanted to prevent the disclosure of this information, it is well within his power to craft a bill that would do so,” Whitener wrote. “But current law requires the release of this information because of Libertys Champion’s status as a news outlet.”
Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, Pierce County Corrections Guild, Washington State Association of Broadcasters, Radio Television Digital News Association, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington filed briefs in the case. .
Some, including Washington’s Allied Daily Newspapers, have raised concerns about the case’s potential implications for state protection law, which protects journalists from being compelled to testify, identify sources or to hand over notes or other information from their newsgathering.
“This case is the first to interpret the Shield Act’s definition of news media,” their brief argued. “There is a risk of broadening the definition so far as to jeopardize the continued existence of the law. If the term ‘news media’ includes anyone posting comments online or identifying themselves as a journalist, the potential impact on the justice system is significant.”
He went on to say, “While Allied Daily Newspapers supports the widest possible access to government records, extending the Law of the Shield to any self-declared journalist is a risky way to achieve this.”