Because news reporters frequently cover events that result in criminal prosecutions or civil litigation, reporters often are subpoenaed to provide testimony or other evidence. Since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Branzburg v. Hayes that the First Amendment does not provide news reporters with an absolute privilege protecting them from revealing confidential sources and information, state and federal courts around the country have disagreed regarding the existence and scope of a qualified journalist’s privilege based on the First Amendment.
North Carolina’s appellate courts have not provided full guidance about the First Amendment-based testimonial privilege. However, in 1999 the N.C. General Assembly enacted a strong shield law providing a broad qualified privilege for news personnel subpoenaed to testify in court or in similar, quasi-judicial proceedings.
This chapter begins with a review of the state’s shield law. Then it discusses the law on the First Amendment-based privilege in North Carolina. The chapter concludes with some practical advice for dealing with subpoenas and an explanation of the law on the related topic of newsroom searches.