U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis said the city had failed to show him a concern so compelling to trump the “precious rights of freedom of speech and the press” when it last fall requested outtakes and other materials from the film “The Central Park Five.”
The request was connected to a $250 million federal lawsuit filed by the men against the city nine years ago after their sentences were vacated. The attack on a 28-year-old investment banker occurred in April 1989, when she was found in the park after being beaten and raped while jogging. She was in a coma for 12 days and was left with permanent damage. The men were exonerated after a man already jailed for other crimes confessed, and DNA evidence supported his claim.
Ellis rejected arguments by the city that Florentine Films and filmmakers Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns were not independent journalists entitled to reporter’s privilege.
He said Florentine had “established its independence in the making of the film” and may claim the privilege.
He also said the city had failed to adequately address the requirements of relevance and significance of the materials it sought and had failed to demonstrate they are not available from another source.
City attorney Celeste Koeleveld said city lawyers were “disappointed and reviewing our options.”
“While journalistic privilege under the law is very important, we firmly believe it did not apply here. This film is a one-sided advocacy piece that depicts the plaintiffs’ version of events as undisputed fact. It is our view that we should be able to view the complete interviews, not just those portions that the filmmakers chose to include,” the lawyer said in a statement.
Burns said that he and his co-filmmakers are “grateful for this important decision.”
“This adds a layer of important protection to journalists and filmmakers everywhere,” he said.
His lawyer, John Siegal, called it a “marvelous decision for the media industry generally and documentary filmmakers in particular.”
In a declaration submitted to the court in November, Burns called the city’s position “deeply disturbing for documentarians and reporters — and the public at large” and “a troubling attempt to expand the power and role of city government and to reduce the legal protection afforded reporters.”
He said the filmmakers made statements after the documentary was made urging the city to settle with the plaintiffs and “close this painful chapter in their lives and the life of the city.”
But he said the opinion resulted from the reporting for the film.
“By stating this view, we have not forfeited our journalistic integrity any more than any author or columnist or filmmaker who espouses a point-of-view about a story he or she is reporting,” he wrote.