Federal court finds reporters’ privilege in First Amendment
MINNESOTA–The reporters’ privilege derived from the First Amendment interests in newsgathering protects reporters’ underlying work product as well as the identity of their confidential sources, a federal District Court judge in Minneapolis held in mid-October.
The Minnesota shield law, which protects reporters from having to reveal their confidential sources in state court proceedings, does not apply in cases based on federal law.
The court refused to compel the Red Wing Republican Eagle to turn over unpublished interview notes and to identify sources used in articles published in early August. The front-page stories reported that the judicial appointment of Goodhue County Attorney Gary Fridell was derailed by a letter to the governor charging the appointee with sexual harassment.
Julie Crisp, who is suing Fridell for sexual harassment and retaliatory discharge, hoped to show that Fridell was the source for the newspaper’s articles, which contained details from her letter to Governor Arne Carlson. Fridell’s involvement in the stories would help show he had a motive to fire her, Crisp told the court.
The court, in determining whether the reporter’s privilege applied, said that it would consider whether the information sought is critical to the heart of the claim, is highly material and relevant, and is not available from other sources.
The court found that Crisp had failed to show the information was material and went to the heart of her claims. The fact that an individual would discuss a noteworthy case with a newspaper does not necessarily indicate a motive for retaliatory discharge, the court noted. Furthermore, Crisp had not shown that the information was not obtainable from other sources. The court said disclosure would not be compelled “in light of the important policy considerations protecting a reporter’s privilege.”
In addition, the court held that the newspaper did not waive the privilege by printing an editorial that asserted that its source for the stories was not Fridell. “Mentioning who is not an informant is not the same as indicating who is the informant,” the court observed. (Crisp v. Fridell; Media Counsel: Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis)