National Press Club

Roxana Kopetman, who refused to testify, to join June 1 event on jailed journalists

May 21, 2015 | By Galen Tan | galentan@gmail.com

In the 1980s, Roxana Kopetman spent time in jail in defense of the principle that journalists should not be compelled to testify just for being witnesses to an event, particularly when there are other bystanders.

Kopetman will be part of a panel of fellow jailbird journalists at 6 p.m. Monday, June 1, in the Murrow Room. The two-hour landmark symposium will focus on the need for stronger legal protections for reporters.

The event is open to the public and is sponsored in part by the club’s Journalism Institute and Freedom of the Press Committee. Tickets are $5 for Club members and $10 for nonmembers.

In 1987, Kopetman, then a young staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, and an intern photographer were covering members of a local police department task force when they became eye witnesses to an arrest.

“I had heard that Long Beach police created a task force to 'clean up' the downtown area and asked if I could tag along,” said Kopetman, now an immigration reporter with the Orange County Register.

Police officers arrested a man named Sean Delaney after their search of his jacket uncovered an illegal weapon, a set of brass knuckles.

Delaney denied he consented to a search of his jacket. Without his consent, the court could deem the search and discovery of the knuckles and resulting arrest illegal, and exclude the weapon as evidence. So, he subpoenaed Kopetman and the photographer to testify at a municipal court hearing.

“At the time, I felt I was an easy target,” Kopetman said. “Those demanding our testimony had not bothered to ask other witnesses, and there were quite a few they could have asked. I felt that it put us in a compromising position. If journalists want to maintain their role as objective observers, they shouldn’t be hauled into court to help out either side,"

The newspaper’s attorneys argued that Kopetman was protected by the First Amendment and her observation of the search and seizure was “unpublished information,” protected under California’s newspaper shield law.

That argument was rejected by the court but Kopetman and her colleague still refused to testify on whether Delaney had consented to the search.

“The judge warned me I would be held in contempt of court,” she said. “She told me to bring a toothbrush.”

The contempt citation resulted in Kopetman spending nine hours in detention before she was released on a $1,000 bail.

While the Los Angeles Superior Court overturned the charges against Kopteman and the photographer, the California Supreme Court in 1990 ruled that the journalists had to testify.

In a nuanced ruling, the state Supreme Court held for the first time that journalists can refuse to give testimony on their eyewitness observations and other unpublished but non-confidential information they learn in the course of their reporting responsibilities. However, the court also ruled the state shield law did not trump a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial if that reporter’s testimony would materially assist his/her case.

Kopetman recently discussed the press freedom ramifications of her case with her then-attorney, Rex Heinke.

“He noted that the case weakened reporters’ privilege when it involves a criminal case,” she said. “But it also solidified our rights in civil cases because reporters don’t have to testify about their unpublished information and observations, confidential or not.”

The June 1 symposium is sponsored by the Club's Journalism Institute, Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, The First Amendment Coalition, Expose Facts.Org, The Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Association and the Institute for Public Accuracy.

For more information about the event, please contact Nicole Hoffman at nhoffman@press.org.