Individuals with YouTube accounts are not automatically considered to be members of the news media under Washington state’s public records law, according to a recent decision by the state’s supreme court.
In an opinion handed down late last month, seven state supreme court judges ruled that Washington’s public records law recognizes certain rights of established members of the news media, but those rights do not extend to individuals who self-publish journalistic information on YouTube and other online platforms.
The case was brought by Brian Green, a citizen journalist who operates a YouTube account called “Liberty’s Champion.” In 2017, Green filed a public records request through Washington’s open records law seeking information about security guards who refused him and another individual access to a government building unless they agreed to a search three years earlier.
Green’s request sought photographs and certain personal information related to the security guards that would normally be exempt from disclosure. But the state’s open records law carves out an exemption for the news media, which allows news organizations to receive that type of information.
The agency in question fulfilled Green’s request in part by providing him around 11 pages of records, but they denied his request for photographs and other information, stating that they did not believe he was a member of the news media merely because he operated a YouTube account. Green sued, arguing that his YouTube account was a news media product and that he should be afforded the same privileges as traditional news outlets under Washington’s law.
A trial court initially found Green’s YouTube account to meet the threshold of a recognizable news media entity, but the state’s supreme court decided against him, finding that the law protects established news media organizations, and not merely individuals who self-publish.
The issue ultimately came down to a single word in the state’s law: “Entity.” Before the appearance of that word, the statute offered a list of covered news enterprises — newspapers, magazines, wire services, radio stations, television stations and others — before stating that other, similar entities were also covered by the news media privilege.
The state supreme court said it believed legislators intended the word “entity” to cover organizations that were similar in nature to the traditional news media outlets referred earlier in the statute. Since it did not specify that individuals acting as journalists were also covered, the court ruled that Green was not entitled to the privilege.
“Under the plain meaning of the statute, the word ‘entity’ cannot be construed to include an individual,” the court found. “An ‘entity’ must be something with a legal identity separate from the individual…owning and operating a YouTube channel alone does not create a news media entity. ”
Interestingly, if Green had provided proof that his YouTube channel was operated as a legal business separate from his personal interests, he may have prevailed in his case. That was not for lack of effort: Earlier in the case, the agency that received Green’s YouTube request asked for him to disclose information about the organizational structure of his YouTube channel. Green did not comply with the request for information.
But the supreme court determined Green’s own statements ultimately made it clear that he operated the YouTube account as an extension of his individual interests and not as a separate legal entity.
“Green has stated that ‘Liberty’s Champion does not exist without Mr. Green,'” the opinion said.