N.J. judge orders local blogger to defend journalist status

Lilly Chapa | Reporter's Privilege | News | February 4, 2013

A New Jersey Superior Court judge recently ordered a blogger to defend her status as a journalist and explain why the state's shield law applies to her in order to avoid revealing the names of government officials she accused of wrongdoing.

Union County prosecutors have subpoenaed blogger Tina Renna for the names of 16 government officials who she accused online of misusing county generators after Hurricane Sandy. Renna, who runs the website The County Watchers, claims her sources would be revealed if she handed over the officials' names.

“I’m being persecuted,” Renna said in an interview. “I’m a journalist. If I can’t protect my sources I’m out of business. I wouldn’t want people to give me information that would put them in danger, and I don’t see why they’d want to do that either.”

According to her attorney Bruce Rosen, Renna should be protected under the New Jersey shield law, which is one of the broadest shield laws in the country. The statute has a generous definition of "reporter" and exceptions to the law are specifically defined. The state shield law also provides absolute immunity from civil suits.

“If [Renna] is not recognized as a journalist here, I don’t see how she’d be recognized anywhere,” Rosen said.

In November, Renna, the president of an organization called the Union County Watchdog Association, wrote a post about the misuse of generators in the blackout days following Hurricane Sandy. According to Renna's blog, 16 government officials improperly used the generators but she did not name them.

Union City prosecutors attempted but failed to contact Renna twice to get the list of names. Renna was then served with a subpoena to go before a grand jury.

Judge Karen Cassidy ordered an informational hearing for Feb. 28 to further discuss whether Renna is a journalist as defined under the state shield law. Cassidy also wants to look into accusations that Renna did not identify herself as a journalist when speaking to sources.

Prosecutors have argued that Renna cannot be defined as a journalist because she was involved in politics in the past and the blog is biased and often critical of the Union County government, according to news accounts. A representative from the prosecutor's office declined to comment.

“Read my body of work and my blog,” Renna said. “Look at all the things we as a team have been able to uncover. Currently, we are the only media that covers the Union County government.”

Forty states have some type of shield law in place that protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources.

In addition, many federal courts often recognize a First Amendment-based qualified privilege under the First Amendment. The qualified privilege calls for a balancing of interests between the right to compelled disclosure and the right to properly gather news through confidential information.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press recently wrote a friend-of-the-court brief to support an Oregon blogger in a similar situation. The brief argued that an author’s function, not the chosen medium of publication, is what triggers a shield law’s protection.

“The determination of whether a particular person qualifies for such protections cannot be based on what a journalist’s job traditionally has been; rather, any test must be closely matched to the constitutionally protected function journalists perform,” the brief stated.

Renna said she hopes her case makes it easier for other bloggers to stand up against subpoenas.

“Not every citizen has the wherewithal or resources to stand up for themselves,” Renna said. “Hopefully, this will make it easier for the next person. They might even be able to avoid these kinds of harassments from prosecutors.”

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· New Jersey - Privilege Compendium: a. Reporter