Ken Burns Wins Legal Fight Over ‘Central Park Five’ Subpoena

Federal magistrate rules that documentarians deserve the protection of journalistic privilege

In what could be seen as a victory for documentary filmmakers everywhere, Ken Burns has won his battle with New York City over outtakes from his documentary "The Central Park Five."

Getty Images

New York federal magistrate Ronald L. Ellis on Tuesday ruled in favor of Burns, as well as his Florentine Films partners Sarah Burns and David McMahon, and quashed the city's subpoena for outtakes and other material from the film.

Also read: Ken Burns Defies NYC Subpoena for "Central Park Five" Documentary Material

The film examines the case of five men who were convicted of the 1989 rape of jogger Trisha Melli in New York's Central Park. Convicted almost entirely on confessions obtained after 16 hours of interrogation without the benefit of legal representation, the five men were released after years in prison when the true assailant confessed.

Those men are currently suing the city, which had hoped that outtakes and other material from the film would help their defense.

While the city of New York argued that Burns and his partners had lost the right of journalistic privilege when they advocated on behalf of the wrongfully convicted men, Ellis found otherwise, ruling that documentary makers generally qualify as journalists with benefit of journalistic privilege.

"Documentary filmmakers gather and disseminate information about significant social and political issues," said entertainment attorney Michael C. Donaldson, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the independent film community. "Through their films, they uncover new information, advocate action, and initiate public debate where none had previously existed."

Donaldson added, "Preservation of the journalistic privilege for documentary filmmakers in spite of how they initially find out about a story and in spite of how passionately they advocate for their subjects is essential to documentarians being able to work effectively."

Back in October, Burns and his partners accused the city of attempting to "delay and deny closure and justice" by requesting the materials.

“For the last ten years the City has refused to settle the civil rights lawsuit brought by these young men," the Florentine partners said in a statement. "This strikes us as just another effort to delay and deny closure and justice to these five men, each of whom was cleared of guilt even though they served out their full and unjustified terms."