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Reporter wins appeal of order to reveal sources

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From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals clarified the state’s shield law on June 18 when it ruled that a sports reporter for a weekly newspaper in suburban St. Paul did not have to reveal confidential sources.

The ruling overturned a trial judge’s order holding Maplewood Review sports reporter Wally Wakefield in contempt of court. The trial judge threatened Wakefield with a $200-a-day fine in November 2001 for defying the judge’s order to name confidential sources for a story about a fired high school football coach. The fine was suspended while Wakefield appealed.

The ex-coach, Richard Weinberger, subpoenaed Wakefield to testify in Weinberger’s libel lawsuit against several school officials. Weinberger plans to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, said his attorney, Stephen Cooper.

Minnesota’s shield law generally protects reporters from forced disclosure of confidential sources. The statute includes an exception for defamation cases, in which a court can order disclosure.

The defamation exception does not apply to all journalists in all libel cases, the appeals court ruled. 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 of forcing the disclosure is to make the reporter a witness against libel defendants, the court ruled. The public official bringing the suit also must show that the allegedly defamatory statements were false or made with actual malice.

“It’s a very bold, billboard-style statement that the reporter’s privilege is strong and secure,” said Mark Anfinson, Wakefield’s attorney.

The appeals court based its ruling in part on the chilling effect that compelled disclosure of confidential sources would have on the media.

“Compelling disclosure of confidential sources of statements in an article about a public official, for the purpose of making the reporter a witness against sources, has significant potential to interfere with a reporter’s ability to gather news,” Judge Terri J. Stoneburner wrote for the three-judge panel.

Weinberger subpoenaed Wakefield to disclose the sources of statements in an article the part-time reporter wrote in January 1997 about Weinberger’s firing from Tartan High School. The article contained several statements from unnamed sources who said Weinberger intimidated Tartan football players.

Weinberger sued the school district and four district employees for defamation. He did not include the suburban St. Paul newspaper or Wakefield in the lawsuit.

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

Weinberger could not force Wakefield to identify the sources without first showing that the statements were false or made with actual malice, the court ruled. To prove actual malice, Weinberger had to show that the people who made the statements either knew what they said was untrue or that they acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Weinberger did not meet that burden, the court ruled.

Weinberger argued that he needed Wakefield’s testimony to establish actual malice. The appeals court responded that Weinberger wanted to make Wakefield a witness against the defendants.

Weinberger also failed to show that forcing Wakefield to reveal confidential sources would lead to relevant evidence for his defamation claim, the court ruled.

The court found that Wakefield’s concern about the chilling effect on newsgathering was at least as great as Weinberger’s interest in obtaining the information. The public also has an interest in the outcome of the case, the court noted.

“The article qualifies as having great public interest and the public would be harmed by any chilling effect on the free flow of this type of information to the public,” the ruling said.

Wakefield, a 72-year-old retired elementary school teacher, said the ruling vindicates his decision not to break his promise of confidentiality to his sources.

“For the entire business of reporters and for all of the media, this has been a victory,” Wakefield said. “It’s not only me that came out ahead on this. I think it’s the entire industry.” (Weinberger v. Maplewood Review) — MD