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Fund created to help Minn. reporter pay contempt fines

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From the Spring 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 20.

From the Spring 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 20.

A group of Minnesota reporters is raising money on behalf of a 73-year-old colleague who was ordered by the state Supreme Court last fall to reveal the identity of a confidential source or pay a fine of $200 per day, beginning April 12. The fine could reach as high as $20,000.

Wally Wakefield, a retired elementary school teacher, has worked for the Maplewood Review newspaper for the past 20 years. In January 1997, Wakefield contributed to a story about the firing of Tartan High School football coach Richard Weinberger, who was terminated following accusations of misconduct, according to court records.

The article contained several statements from unnamed school officials who said Weinberger intimidated his players. Weinberger sued the school district and four school officials for defamation, but did not sue Wakefield — who obtained the statements under a promise of confidentiality — or the newspaper. Instead, Weinberger subpoenaed Wakefield to learn the identities of his sources.

On Nov. 6, 2002, Judge Dale B. Lindman of District Court in St. Paul ordered Wakefield to comply with the subpoena. When Wakefield refused, he was found in contempt of court and fined $200 per day until he revealed his sources. The fine was stayed pending appeal.

Mark Anfinson, Wakefield’s attorney, argued before the Minnesota Supreme Court that the state shield law protected Wakefield from having to reveal his confidential sources. The court, however, in reversing an appellate court ruling, held in September 2003 that the law includes an exception for defamation cases, and that Wakefield is not protected under the shield law because his evidence is relevant to Weinberger’s libel suit.

Wakefield must pay the $200 per-day fine until July 19, when Weinberger’s defamation lawsuit begins.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporters Steve Brandt and Randy Furst created the group to help offset the cost to Wakefield. Furst says the group is looking for donations of “whatever people can give — $25, $50, $100. A handful of reporters are donating a day’s pay,” he said.

To make a donation, make checks payable to: The Wally Wakefield Defense Fund, P.O. Box 8115, Minneapolis, MN 55408.

— KM