CBS Corp. subpoenas PR firm's contacts with journalists in ongoing legal dispute

Lawyers for CBS Corporation have issued a subpoena to a public relations firm, demanding its communications with journalists related to an ongoing legal battle between CBS and its largest shareholder, National Amusements Inc.

National Amusements, a company run by 95-year-old billionaire media magnate Sumner Redstone, and his daughter Shari, is the controlling shareholder of both CBS and Viacom. The Redstones have sought to merge CBS and Viacom. CBS is fighting the proposed merger. 

The CBS subpoena, issued Aug. 21 to Boston-based Cone Communications, requests “all documents concerning communications between (Cone) and any reporter, journalist or other member of the media concerning: (a) CBS; (b) Viacom; or (c) any of the NAI Parties.” 

The subpoena also requests messages sent between Cone and employees of National Amusements.

It specifically names Cone Communications’ Chief Reputation Officer Mike Lawrence, instructing the company to treat the request as if it were a “personal subpoena” to Lawrence. Reached by email, Lawrence declined to comment.

Clay Calvert, a law professor and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, called the subpoena “dangerous.” He said it risks embroiling journalists in a legal drama they’re tasked with covering.

“It’s a dangerous situation, because even though the journalists themselves are not being subpoenaed, it still sweeps them up in this,” Calvert said.

Calvert called the subpoena “a workaround” to so-called “shield laws,” which are designed to protect journalists and their sources. These state laws often allow journalists to refuse to testify about information given to them confidentially.

A spokesperson for CBS Corporation declined to comment.

The subpoena is the latest salvo in the ongoing legal battle between CBS and National Amusements. In July, National Amusements claimed CBS executives used “disappearing” messaging app TigerText to effectively delete messages sent between executives, and accused a CBS board member of secretly recording video of Sumner Redstone in his home.

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