A Phoenix TV station didn’t waive its right under the state shield law and doesn’t have to reveal the source of sealed documents it used for a story on a tire safety lawsuit, according to an opinion released Tuesday by the Arizona Court of Appeals.
A divided three-judge panel rejected Cooper Tire and Rubber Co.’s argument that KNVX-TV waived its reporter’s privilege by asking a lower court for a declaratory judgment and by describing the source as a whistleblower.
“We construe the scope of waiver narrowly,” Judge Maurice Portley wrote for the 2-1 majority. “The interest in protecting the informant’s confidentiality is substantial. The statutory privilege protects reporters and those employed by a television station.”
The panel said that to rule otherwise would undercut the purpose of the state’s shield law and create a chilling effect on journalists’ ability to report the news.
The panel also affirmed the validity of the hearing process that the district court used to determine whether or not KNVX breached the confidentiality order, which was part of the underlying product liability case. Cooper alleged that the process, which included the trial judge’s decision to privately review a statement submitted by KNVX reporter Abbie Boudreau as to how she obtained the documents, violated the company’s due process rights.
The dispute stems from a story KNXV broadcast on Nov. 3, 2005, regarding a lawsuit alleging that Cooper’s tires caused a fatal rollover crash. Boudreau received documents from an anonymous source following a confidential settlement agreed in the accident lawsuit in September 2005.
Following the broadcast, Cooper demanded the TV station reveal its source and return the documents, saying they were included in the confidential order issued in the settlement.
David Bodney, an attorney representing the station, said this is the latest in a string of attempts by the Ohio-based tire company to expose the confidential source.
“All of these challenges, whether it’s the due process or waiver challenge, represent the most of Cooper’s repeated attempts to unmask a confidential source,” Bodney said. “So, the opinion represents an important protection of the journalist privilege even against the most repeated and aggressive attacks.”
Bodney said this case has provided journalists in Arizona more leeway in using anonymous sources in future stories.
“The opinion underscores the importance of protecting the journalist privilege as completely as possible,” he said. “And, it should provide additional breathing room for reporters who rely on confidential informants to publish news about matters of public health and safety.”