Freedom of the press comes under scrutiny

United Methodist church law provides for an official newsgathering function that is editorially independent. Moreover, the Book of Discipline charges United Methodist Communications with the responsibility to work toward promotion and protection of the historic freedoms of religion and the press and to seek to increase the ethical, moral, and human values of media structures and programs.

Those freedoms will come under closer scrutiny as a federal court reviews a motion filed by lawyers for United Methodist Communications this week to quash a subpoena requesting the entire, unedited version of a video interview conducted by journalist Kathy Gilbert with an interview subject who subsequently sued local government.

The matter concerns an article published by United Methodist News Service in July 2008 by Kathy Gilbert and Amanda Bachus (both employees of United Methodist Communications) concerning Juana Villegas, an illegal immigrant who was arrested for a minor traffic violation and jailed in Berry Hill, a small incorporated city inside Metropolitan Nashville.

According to the UMNS story, “Villegas went into labor on the night of July 5 and was taken to Nashville General Hospital, where she was handcuffed to the bed by her right wrist and left ankle until two hours before her son, Gael, was born on July 6. Six hours after the birth, she was shackled again, and a guard was with her at all times. Villegas returned to jail July 8 and was not allowed to take a breast pump, causing her breasts to become infected, according to her attorney. She did not see her baby again until her release on July 10.”


Villegas’ story drew national media attention and her treatment gave rise to a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. As part of the discovery process, lawyers for the Metropolitan Department of Law issued a subpoena for Gilbert’s unedited video footage.

Tennessee state law protects any information obtained for publication or broadcast by a person employed by the news media or press, or who is independently engaged in gathering information for publication or broadcast. This provision ensures that journalists can do their jobs—securing information and reporting—without threat of subpoena. Tennessee is one of approximately three dozen states that have some form of a shield law.

Journalists should not be required to be information-gatherers for court cases—and non-profit journalism should be no less entitled to protection of unpublished information than a commercial news organization.

What makes a journalist a journalist? In this case, the court will decide. But the 2010 State of the News Media Report, an annual report on American journalism by the Pew Project For Excellence In Journalism says, “the data continue to suggest a clear pattern in how Americans gravitate for news: people are increasingly ‘on demand’ consumers, seeking platforms where they can get the news they want when they want it from a variety of sources rather than have to come at appointed times and to one news organization.”

4 Responses to “Freedom of the press comes under scrutiny”

  1. Cynthia Astle August 2, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    Thanks for this information, Larry. I’ll keep watch on this as it develops and may use it as news for the next issue of The Progressive Christian.

    Meanwhile, I’m totally supportive of UMCom’s position in this matter and of you and Kathy personally. Let me know if I can be of any help.
    Cynthia Astle

  2. Larry August 3, 2010 at 7:47 am #

    Thank you for your interest.

  3. Deacon V August 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    I am glad UM Com is fighting this. In my mind this is about both freedom of the press and separation of church and state. Our church journalists cannot do their job without their constitutional freedoms protected. Please keep us posted on how this goes.–Victoria R

  4. john481962 August 26, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    I don’t see the issue. She published the story, and made certain statements that led to a lawsuit. Since she published the story, and there is now source to protect, there is no one to shield. After all, once the story is published it is public knowledge. Why are they fighting this? The only reason I can see is that there must be exculpatory information that she did not publish.

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