New York City officials refused to participate in Ken Burns’s documentary The Central Park Five, which focuses on the wrongful conviction of five black and Hispanic men in a notorious 1989 rape case, but when it was complete, the city subpoenaed footage and notes that didn’t make it into the final cut. Lawyers hoped to use Burns’s materials to defend the city in a $250 million federal lawsuit filed by the exonerated men nine years ago, but on Tuesday a judge ruled in Burns’s favor. While the city claims that the filmmakers aren’t entitled to reporter’s privilege because they advocated for the men after the film’s release, the judge found that the film still counts as independent journalism, even if Burns’s team concluded that the city was wrong.
The city’s lawyers compared the case to that of documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who was forced to turn over outtakes from his 2009 film Crude because he was asked to make a film from the perspective of a group of Ecuadoreans suing Chevron. The judge found that while the Central Park Five filmmakers — including Burns, his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon — said they hoped the city would settle the case, they approached the project as independent journalists. He also questioned the city’s claim that couldn’t get the material elsewhere, since the men will be deposed before the trial.
Celeste Koeleveld, the city’s executive assistant corporation counsel, told the New York Times that the city is “disappointed” and is reviewing its options. “While journalistic privilege under the law is very important, we firmly believe it did not apply here,” she said. “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.”
On the other hand, Burns said he “jumped up and down” when he heard the news, and called it a win for all journalists and filmmakers. He added that he hopes that now the focus in the case will go back to “getting a resolution for something that has haunted New York for far too long.”