By: Joel Davis

Reporters Suing Arizona Republic Sought Underwood’s Notes

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Washington State Court of Appeals
has ruled in favor of a journalist whose notes were sought by
reporters suing The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

The court ruled Feb. 5 that Doug Underwood’s notes were
confidential and privileged, overturning a previous state
Superior Court ruling that ordered the notes be given to
attorneys for 18 reporters suing Phoenix Newspapers Inc. (the
Republic’s parent), and former Managing Editor Steve
Knickmeyer. He was quoted by Underwood in a January 1998
Columbia Journalism Review story covering layoffs at the
Republic as saying that most of those who had been laid
off were “fat, lazy, incompetent, and slow.” The reporters, on
the other hand, told Underwood they were fired because their work
conflicted with the newspaper’s corporate interests.

The reporters claimed defamation by Knickmeyer, arguing in a
civil suit that Underwood’s notes constitute crucial evidence
that is not protected by law because Knickmeyer was not a
confidential source.

Underwood declined to turn over the notes to the reporters,
saying they were protected by the First Amendment.

Although First Amendment advocates believe last week’s ruling is
ominous because the three-judge panel insisted on reviewing the
notes privately, or in camera, before handing down a decision,
both Underwood, a University of Washington journalism professor,
and his attorney are happy with the ruling.

“I don’t agree that it isn’t a good victory for the press –
as well as for me,” Underwood told E&P. “There isn’t a
Washington shield law, so this ruling establishes at least some
important precedent in the state.”

“I am not troubled by the in-camera review ordered by the appeals
court here – Doug requested it,” said Bruce Johnson,
Underwood’s attorney. “[M]ost courts would utilize in-camera
review in applying the journalist’s privilege in this situation.
What the trial court did was order Doug’s notes turned over to
the plaintiff-reporters, without even looking at them.”

Joel Davis (jdavis@editorandpublisher.com) is West Coast editor for E&P.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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