Skip to content

Book author wins right to keep notes confidential

Post categories

  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Book author wins right to keep notes confidential02/21/95 CALIFORNIA -- In mid-February the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco…


CALIFORNIA — In mid-February the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) reversed a lower court’s ruling that a book author must turn over his notes in a libel case in which he was not a party.

The Court of Appeals reversed the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Van Sickle, who ordered book author Ronald Watkins arrested after Watkins refused to comply with Van Sickle’s order to disclose documents relating to his interviews with L.S. Shoen, founder of the U-Haul International Inc. The court of appeals ruled that Watkins’ notes were constitutionally privileged.

Shoen is being sued for libel by his two sons, Joe and Mark Shoen, for allegedly suggesting the sons might have been involved in a family member’s death. Watkins’ 1993 book “Birthright” discussed the murder of Eva Berg Shoen, the wife of L.S. Shoen’s eldest son Sam, who was shot to death in the family’s cabin near Telluride, Colo.

The libel action was instituted for statements made by L.S. Shoen before his interviews with Watkins.

The Court of Appeals ruled that in order to overcome a valid claim of reporter’s privilege, a civil litigant seeking non- confidential material must show that the material is unavailable despite exhaustion of all reasonable alternative sources, not already available from other sources, and clearly relevant to an important issue in the case. The court ruled that the Shoen brothers failed to meet these requirements.

In early September, the Court of Appeals stayed Van Sickle’s order for Watkins’ arrest pending resolution of the appeal. The stay was issued by the appellate court 15 minutes before Watkins was scheduled to voluntarily surrender himself to authorities. (Shoen v. Shoen; Media Counsel: Guy Bradley Price, Phoenix)

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.