The city of Minneapolis served subpoenas to local journalists Friday, seeking materials gathered during their coverage of the unrest that followed George Floyd's murder in May 2020.
The subpoenas are part of an ongoing federal civil lawsuit filed by a photojournalist blinded in one eye after being shot with a foam bullet by a police officer during the turmoil. Reporters from the Star Tribune, Minnesota Reformer and Fox 9 were among those who have been served, according to accounts on social media.
"We are reviewing the issue, but we expect to challenge the subpoena," said Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor and vice president of the Star Tribune. Dardarian will replace the departing Rene Sanchez later this month as editor and senior vice president.
Friday's subpoenas relate to the city's defense of a lawsuit filed by photojournalist Linda Tirado. In the suit, Tirado said Minneapolis police officers targeted her and fired a foam bullet at her face even though she told them she was a member of the news media and had documentation to prove it.
City spokesman Casper Hill told the Star Tribune in an e-mail Friday that the subpoenas were "served in connection with a case involving a journalist's lawsuit stemming from the unrest."
"Those who were served were named by the plaintiff as persons with information," he continued. "Therefore, they are being deposed to determine what information they have regarding her lawsuit."
However, the city's request appeared to go beyond the events that led to Tirado's injuries. A subpoena served on Star Tribune reporter Andy Mannix sought materials related to his thigh injury from a projectile that hit him on May 26, 2020, the day after Floyd's death.
The subpoenas, which ask the journalists to appear for depositions later this month via Zoom videoconferencing, seek "all videos, recording, emails, texts, and documents" that relate to "any protests, riots, members of the press, or law enforcement actions between May 26-31," as well as all materials related to Tirado or her counsel.
"Please note that this subpoena is not requesting any items or documents for which you have a good faith basis to assert is protected by a legally recognized journalistic privilege," the subpoenas say.
According to Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota media ethics and law professor, that privilege could shield most, if not all, of what the city is seeking from reporters.
"My immediate reaction [is] that this is very overbroad," Kirtley said. "It is not specific enough to indicate why this material is needed from this reporter or that news organization as opposed to other bystanders."
J. Patrick Coolican, editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Reformer, confirmed Friday that Deputy Editor Max Nesterak was served at his home with a subpoena "for a broad range of materials related to his reporting" during the 2020 unrest.
"This ham-handed effort to intimidate journalists with a burdensome legal action will not achieve its intended effect," Coolican said. "Quite the contrary. We will continue to aggressively pursue our reporting, and protect our newsgathering rights from interference by government officials."
Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim last month allowed Tirado's suit against Minneapolis and former police union leader Lt. Bob Kroll to continue after both defendants sought to dismiss it.
The city, Tunheim wrote, "cannot escape municipal liability if a plaintiff can plausibly allege that it was deliberately indifferent to widespread, consistent, unlawful use of force against the press."
He continued: "That numerous other journalists experienced similar, seemingly unjustified incidents involving less-lethal munitions and other measures is even more troubling, as the allegations plausibly suggest an unconstitutional custom carried out by [Minneapolis police] officers of targeting journalists for unlawful reprisals."
Tirado has undergone two eye surgeries and been told she may need more, according to court documents, while dealing with ongoing complications.
Kirtley said it was unclear whether the city, in defending against Tirado's suit, has truly exhausted all investigatory outlets before seeking materials possessed by journalists who were on the ground during the 2020 unrest.
"Journalists have to be independent and cannot be, or be perceived as, independent if they are turned into the investigative arm of the government," she said.
Staff writer Alex Chhith contributed to this report.