Court applies strict test to confidential source disclosure
MINNESOTA–The state Court of Appeals in St. Paul in mid-January overturned a lower court’s broad decision ordering a journalist to disclose all sources of information for a story that led to a libel suit.
The appellate court ruled that orders to disclose confidential sources must be narrowly drawn. In addition, the party seeking disclosure may have to show that the information is false in order to “tip the balance” in favor of disclosure.
The Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis had ruled that the libel plaintiff was entitled to learn the identities of all confidential sources used in a story on court mismanagement by Gannett-owned television station KARE 11 in Minneapolis. The KARE story had shown footage of Ramsey County court administrator Robert Bauer taking smoking breaks and golfing during hours that he would normally be scheduled to work. The report said that the five wasted hours each week cost taxpayers $8,000 a year.
Bauer filed a defamation suit against KARE and some of the individuals who had criticized his actions in the report. Bauer asked KARE reporter Gail Plewacki in a deposition to disclose who told her his schedule and work hours, and asked the district court to compel disclosure when Plewacki refused to answer the question. The district court granted the motion and broadened it to say that all Plewacki’s confidential sources were subject to disclosure, not just those that had told her Bauer’s schedule.
The appellate court overturned the order, finding that the balancing tests in the state’s shield law and as developed independently under the First Amendment “require the district court to perform an exacting analysis of each individual request for disclosure … to determine if that particular source or that particular information is clearly relevant to the claim.” (Bauer v. Gannett Co.; Media Counsel: Thomas Tinkham, Minneapolis)