Special Appeals decision will curb search for truth

May 12, 2003

Maryland's second-highest court has ruled that a trio of journalists who overheard a police officer say he would have shot two robbery suspects must testify at the officer's disciplinary hearing. It's bad ruling that will make it harder for reporters to get at the truth.

The decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturns a ruling by a Circuit Court judge in Prince George's County - a ruling which nullified subpoenas sent to reporters from The Washington Post, The Gazette Newspapers and the Prince George's Journal.

Brian Lott, a Prince George's County police officer, allegedly made the remarks in question during a lunch break in the trial of a fellow officer accused of setting a police dog on two unarmed homeless men in 1995.

The three publications reported that Lott said that had he been there, he would have shot the suspects.

Three reporters in question moved to have subpoenas quashed, saying that the reports they published should stand as their statements.


They also invoked a First Amendment right not to testify. There were others who heard the remark and could testify instead, they claimed.

The Circuit Court agreed, but the Court of Special Appeals overturned that ruling, saying that Lott's lawyer, who claims the articles written are "hearsay," has a right to question the three reporters.

Unless, it's appealed, the case could set a dangerous precedent, for the following reason:

There are many people who would not talk to the media if they knew that reporters might be forced to testify about what was said.

If that happens, then there would be fewer stories about matters of importance to the public.

Is society better served by making reporters an arm of the court, or by allowing them the freedom to seek the truth without worrying about court proceedings? The answer is obvious.

At a time when the federal government is restricting Americans' rights in the name of security, the state must not be allowed to force reporters to work for the prosecutor's office.

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