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Court overturns contempt citation over anonymous source

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Court overturns contempt citation over anonymous source 03/08/99 MASSACHUSETTS--In late February, the state Appeals Court in Boston overturned a contempt…

Court overturns contempt citation over anonymous source

03/08/99

MASSACHUSETTS–In late February, the state Appeals Court in Boston overturned a contempt ruling issued against a Boston Globe reporter who had refused to disclose confidential sources used in articles about accidental chemotherapy overdoses that spurred a libel suit.

Because one of reporter Richard Knox’s confidential sources already had come forward and because the statements Dr. Lois Ayash alleged had defamed her did not come from confidential sources, a three-judge appellate panel found the trial court’s ordered disclosure and finding of civil contempt against Knox and the Globe had been premature.

The appellate panel found that there was no constitutional or statutory privilege that would protect the reporter’s sources. However, the panel said it sought to avoid the “needless disclosure of confidential relationships,” and ordered the trial court to reconsider the matter and balance the reporter’s interest in keeping his confidences against the need for disclosure.

Ayash, a doctor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, filed the underlying libel claim against the Globe in 1996. Ayash argued that she was erroneously identified in a 1995 article as having approved a mistaken chemotherapy order, which resulted in a fourfold overdose that caused the death of one patient– Globe columnist Betsy Lehman — and severe toxicity in another patient.

Ayash sought the identity of Knox’s sources in an effort to gather evidence in support of her libel claim against the newspaper. She argued that the identity of those sources would allow her to “assess whether Knox could have obtained the correct information before publication.”

The appellate panel, however, determined Knox and the Globe had shown that Knox would not have been able to gather the information necessary for his articles without promises of anonymity and that his newsgathering ability would be impaired if those promises were broken.

The trial court had imposed fines against the Globe for failing to comply with Ayash’s demands for information, in amounts calculated daily and escalating weekly. Within one year, the fines would have mounted to $1 million against Knox and $10 million against the Globe, according to the Associated Press. However, a Massachusetts Appeals Court judge stayed the execution of the order imposing those fines in September. (Ayash v. Dana-Farber Cancer Inst.; Media Counsel: Jonathan Albano, Boston)