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High court considers shield-law challenge

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Confidentiality/Privilege    

High court considers shield-law challenge

  • Oral arguments heard on whether reporter must divulge confidential sources in defamation suit.

March 6, 2003 — A libel plaintiff argued to the state Supreme Court on Monday that a reporter should have to give up his confidential sources because the sources passed on false information, but the reporter’s attorney warned that such a decision “will have very significant ramifications for news gathering in this state.”

Plaintiff Richard Weinberger, a former high school football coach, wants Maplewood Review reporter Wally Wakefield to reveal his sources for a 1997 story about Weinberger’s firing. He claims the identity of the sources is necessary in his libel suit against the school district and several school officials.

Wakefield has refused to reveal his sources, claiming protection under the state’s shield law, The Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act.

Stephen Cooper, Weinberger’s attorney, told the court that Wakefield should have to disclose his sources because the statements they provided were false, according to an Associated Press report. He said the shield law should not permit people to get away with lying.

But Wakefield’s attorney, Mark Anfinson, urged the court to consider its ruling’s effect on journalists.

“Myriad courts and legislatures have found that if you make it too easy to ferret out who is providing a reporter with information, they’ll not do it anymore; it will cut off that source,” he said, according to the AP report.

Anfinson argued that the public policy behind the shield law — protecting the relationship between reporters and their sources — must be upheld. He said the coach failed to prove the statements were false or were made with actual malice.

The shield law statute includes an exception for defamation cases, in which a court can order disclosure.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several other media organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that Wakefield should be allowed to keep his sources’ identities secret because he is not a party in the case.

The media groups asked the high court to uphold a June 2002 decision by the intermediate appellate court holding that the defamation exception in the shield law does not apply to all journalists in all libel cases. A reporter who is not a party in a libel lawsuit brought by a public official does not have to reveal confidential sources if the primary purpose for forcing the disclosure is to make the reporter a witness against libel defendants, the appeals court ruled. The public official bringing the suit also must show that the allegedly defamatory statements were false or made with actual malice.

(Weinberger v. Maplewood Review; Media counsel: Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis) WT

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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