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Court backs documentary maker Burns in battle with NYC

Director Ken Burns arrives at the Hollywood screening of his movie "The Central Park Five" during AFI FEST in Los Angeles, California Novemb
Director Ken Burns arrives at the Hollywood screening of his movie "The Central Park Five" during AFI FEST in Los Angeles, California Novemb

By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Filmmaker Ken Burns won a favorable ruling in a battle to keep outtakes from his 2012 documentary "The Central Park Five" from the New York City Police Department after a federal judge in Manhattan sided with his production company on Tuesday.

Last October, the city subpoenaed all images, audio tapes and other items related to the making of the documentary, which chronicles the conviction of five black and Hispanic teenage boys for the brutal 1989 rape of Trisha Meili, a white woman who was jogging in Central Park. The case was reversed in 2002, leading to a still-unresolved $250 million lawsuit that the so-called "Central Park Five" and their families brought against the city and the police department.

The city said it wanted the material because parts of the film conflicted with prior testimony some of the plaintiffs provided in their criminal trials, among other reasons, according to court papers.

Burns' production company, Florentine Films, motioned to quash the subpoena, arguing in part that they were protected under New York's shield law for journalists. The city countered that Florentine failed to qualify for the protection, in part because the filmmakers had a "longstanding sympathetic relationship with the plaintiffs."

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis agreed with Florentine, writing that it met its burden in demonstrating journalistic independence with the film.

"It was a marvelous decision, of great value to the media industry generally and to documentary filmmakers in particular," said John Siegal, an attorney representing Florentine.

The city said it was reviewing its options.

"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," Celeste Koeleveld, a senior lawyer for the city, said in a prepared statement.

The case is In re McRay, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 03-09974.

(Reporting By Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Bernard Orr)

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