New Jersey blogger considered a journalist under state Shield Law

Lilly Chapa | Reporter's Privilege | News | April 16, 2013

A New Jersey blogger qualifies for protection under the state’s shield law and does not have to reveal the names of government officials she accused of wrongdoing, a judge ruled.

Union County Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy quashed county prosecutors’ subpoena served on blogger Tina Renna, who runs the website The County Watchers. Prosecutors sought the names of 16 local government officials Renna accused of misusing county generators after Hurricane Sandy in a December blog post. Cassidy ruled that Renna passed a three-part test that determines whether someone qualifies as a journalist and should receive protection under the shield law.

In the opinion, Cassidy considered the three factors: whether Renna had a connection to news media, whether her purpose was to gather or disseminate news, and whether she obtained her information through “professional newsgathering activities.”

“These original posts are arguably newsworthy and constitute ‘news’ under the Statute,” Cassidy wrote in her opinion released Friday. “In addition, her method of talking to sources, attending freeholder meetings, and using Open Public Records Act requests ... is sufficiently similar to the methods used by traditional news media entities.”

The decision came after Cassidy heard arguments from Renna and Union County prosecutor Theodore Romankow in late February. Romankow has publicly questioned whether Renna made up the accusations and invoked the shield law so that she would not be caught.

“Personally, I believe she was caught in a lie and chose to waste time and money by hiding,” the prosecutor told the news website NJ.com on Friday.

In court, Romankow said Renna cannot be considered a journalist because many of her posts are unprofessional and related to her personal involvement in local politics.

Renna argued that she is a journalist and should be protected under New Jersey’s shield law – one of the strongest in the nation. The blogger said she was concerned that handing over the officials' names would allow prosecutors to figure out her sources.

“If they would have forced me to reveal my sources they would have shut me up,” Renna said in an interview. “Who would talk to me if they had to worry about me having to reveal them? I believe that was their goal: to shut down our blog.”

Despite the blog’s self-proclaimed advocate status and some posts “devolv[ing] into ad hominem attacks characterizing county employees as ‘psychopaths,’” Cassidy found that Renna’s website met all three factors to qualify as a journalist.

Renna said she hopes the decision will make it easier for other citizen journalists in similar situations.

“I was happy to be able to prevail and cobble together resources to fight [prosecutors], because not every citizen blogger and watchdog journalist can muster that together,” Renna said. “Hopefully this will pave the way for them.”