Federal court won’t let reporter rely on state shield law
NEW YORK–A federal District Court in Brooklyn in late August ordered a reporter for the Daily Racing Form to reveal the identity of a confidential source who informed the reporter that a racetrack worker was fired for sexually harassing a co-worker.
Reporter Francis LaBelle Jr. was ordered to disclose who provided him the information about Anthony Pellegrino’s termination from the New York Racing Association (NYRA). LaBelle has since asked the court to order disclosure of his source only if the identity of his source is absolutely necessary to Pellegrino’s claim. LaBelle had not disclosed his confidential source as of mid-September.
LaBelle argued that the New York shield law provided him absolute protection against revealing confidential sources. However, the court ruled that federal courts considering reporters’ claims of privilege are not bound to follow New York state law.
The court ruled that LaBelle could not assert an absolute privilege under the New York shield law, stating that if the state shield law’s absolute privilege were applied in this case, it would constitute a significant expansion upon the traditional privilege afforded journalists in federal courts. Such an expansion would place an unjustifiable limit on Pellegrino’s access to evidence.
Instead, the court recognized a federal common law reporter’s privilege based on the First Amendment. However, this qualified privilege can be overcome by showing that the information sought is material and relevant, necessary to the party’s claim, and not obtainable from other sources.
The court ruled that the identity of LaBelle’s source — an NYRA employee — was material and relevant to Pellegrino’s suit. The court found that Pellegrino could not, without knowing the identity of LaBelle’s source, show that this source was authorized to speak on behalf of the NYRA, thus, making the NYRA responsible for the defamatory remarks in LaBelle’s story. Finally, the court ruled that Pellegrino had exhausted all other reasonable methods of determining the source’s identity. The court held that the only remaining option was for LaBelle to reveal his source.
Pellegrino filed a federal civil rights suit against his former employer and is seeking to prove that the NYRA disclosed the alleged sexual harassment charges to LaBelle. Pellegrino is also seeking a “name-clearing hearing” before the NYRA, but first he must show that the NYRA made the stigmatizing information public. (Pellegrino v. New York Racing Association Inc.; Media Counsel: Dori Hanswirth, New York)