Judge charges TV station violated confidentiality rule
WISCONSIN–Saying that a television station violated a juvenile court’s confidentiality rule in a case involving use of drugs by a pregnant woman, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Kathryn Foster in mid- September told WISN-TV that it would “not be permitted to attend any further proceedings” or have “access to anything in the court file.”
The case involves a 24-year-old pregnant woman who had been detained for alleged cocaine use. Rules of the juvenile court, which was hearing the case on behalf of the fetus, require the names of juveniles be kept confidential. The woman’s attorneys are arguing that rights of the fetus are not protected under the state’s child protective custody laws.
Judge Foster wrote that when the Milwaukee television station reported the first and last name of the mother of the unborn child, the broadcast was a direct violation of both the Wisconsin Children’s Code on confidentiality and an agreement signed by WISN reporter Joel Kleefisch.
The letter noted that Foster met with Kleefisch on September 13 concerning the station’s intent to identify the mother and warned him that it would be a violation of the written agreement as well as the statue.
WISN news director Fred D’Ambrosi said the station did not breach any confidentiality agreement. “We got the name from a writ of habeas corpus filed with the state court of appeals in Madison, filed by the woman as an adult, and not from any juvenile court proceeding. This is a public file.”
“There is a specific Wisconsin law that anything in the public file is an open record. We have the right and obligation to report facts in the public domain,” said D’Ambrosi.
D’Ambrosi said the woman’s name was also revealed during a news conference held by her attorney, Robin Shellow.
WISN attorney Matthew Flynn wrote a letter in response to the judge’s letter, seeking access to the trial. Flynn also requested the lifting of the order prohibiting counsel from speaking to WISN, which the station only learned of through the prosecuting attorney.
Flynn argued that “the Wisconsin statues do not permit the selective entrance to court proceedings of some media and not others,” and that WISN did not find the identity of the mother through the court proceedings.
Flynn said that the information reported came from the Court of Appeals, which allows the media to review and publish public records.
During the trial, the matter of WISN’s airing of the woman’s name was heard before a panel of three judges in the Wisconsin State Court of Appeals, in which one judge forbid the station from using the woman’s name, ruling that the case was a juvenile matter.
According to D’Ambrosi. “there was nothing in writing. It was merely a pronouncement from the bench … We had already aired the name by that point.”
The trial concluded without Judge Foster issuing a statement in response to WISN’s letter seeking re-admittance into the court. (WISN-TV v. Foster Media Counsel: Matthew Flynn, Milwaukee)