Holding a journalist in contempt for refusing to testify in a disciplinary case against a lawyer would “chill the press and propel the news media down a very slippery slope,” attorneys argued today in a brief submitted to the Ohio Supreme Court.
In a split 4-3 decision, the justices on Friday gave the Akron Beacon Journal and reporter Phil Trexler five days to demonstrate why they should not be held in contempt for refusal to testify.
In their filing today, lawyers for the newspaper and Trexler asked the court to answer a question never addressed by the justices: What is the standard by which a quasi-judicial or administrative body can compel the testimony of a journalist?
Trexler has refused to testify in a case being heard by the Supreme Court’s disciplinary board against a lawyer who a judge claims disparaged him in quotes in a newspaper story written by Trexler.
The subpoena issued by the disciplinary board is “overbroad, invasive and harassing,” the newspaper’s lawyers wrote.
They argue that Trexler has a qualified privilege under the First Amendment to avoid testifying. He has offered an affidavit stating that he accurately quoted the lawyer and can shed no more light on the dispute, the filing said.
“Mr. Trexler’s role was solely to gather and report the news. He should be allowed to do so without being dragged into the middle of attorney disciplinary proceedings,” the filing states. “If Mr. Trexler can be compelled to testify about that story in those proceedings, any journalist could be compelled to testify about any story in any forum.”