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Appellate court stays decision to jail reporter

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NORTH CAROLINA--Wilmington Morning Star reporter Cory Reiss will not be jailed while the newspaper appeals a federal judge's order compelling…

NORTH CAROLINA–Wilmington Morning Star reporter Cory Reiss will not be jailed while the newspaper appeals a federal judge’s order compelling him to reveal the identity of confidential sources who provided him with information about a sealed settlement agreement, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) decided in late October.

On October 23, Judge W. Earl Britt, sitting in Raleigh, gave Reiss until November 2 to reveal his sources, or surrender to U.S. marshals and stay in jail until he disclosed the information. Britt refused Reiss’ request to stay the holding pending appeal. Reiss subsequently appealed Britt’s order, and the appellate court temporarily stayed enforcement of Britt’s contempt order until it could hear arguments in the matter. Those arguments will be heard in February or March.

A court employee accidentally provided a copy of the sealed settlement agreement to another Morning Star journalist, but Reiss used independent confidential sources to verify the amount of the settlement, which involved the alleged toxic contamination of a neighborhood in Wrightsboro, a community on the outskirts of Wilmington. The residents of the neighborhood had sued Conoco Oil, claiming that a gas leak contaminated their drinking water.

Judge Britt asserts that the court has an interest in determining whether Reiss’ sources were parties to the toxic contamination case, who would have violated a gag order by speaking to Reiss. Reiss and the Morning Star maintain that the First Amendment-based qualified reporter’s privilege protects Reiss from forced disclosure of the identity of his confidential sources. (Ashcraft v. Conoco, Inc.; Media Counsel: Mark Prak, Harold Chen, Raleigh)