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Judge creates exception to state's absolute shield law

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Confidentiality/Privilege   ·   June 9, 2005


Judge creates exception to state’s absolute shield law

  • A Pennsylvania trial judge ordered a former newspaper reporter to disclose her confidential source, creating an unheard-of exception to the absolute protection granted by the state’s shield law.

June 9, 2005  ·   A state trial judge last week carved an exemption to the Pennsylvania law protecting journalists from attempts to disclose their confidential sources, even though the law contains no exceptions and there are no Pennsylvania cases allowing the discovery of a journalist’s confidential source.

Scranton Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert A. Mazzoni ruled that the shield law must yield to the need to enforce grand jury secrecy in a defamation lawsuit filed against The Scranton Times, The (Scranton) Tribune and former reporter Jennifer Henn.

Mazzoni recognized that the shield law “has afforded the media with an unqualified privilege against the identity of a source” and cited no cases recognizing an exception to the privilege. However, he ruled that “the public interest is better served by maintaining and enforcing the secret and confidential operation of the grand jury system.

“The obvious purpose of the Shield Law is to promote the free flow of information to the media,” Mazzoni wrote in a June 3 memorandum and order. “When this purpose, however, clashes with the need to enforce and protect the foundation of the grand jury purpose, the Shield Law should relinquish its priority.”

The ruling is being appealed.

The defamation lawsuit arose from nearly identical stories Henn wrote and published in the jointly owned newspapers in January 2004. Citing “an unnamed source close to the investigation” the stories characterized two Lackawanna County commissioners as uncooperative when they testified before a grand jury.

Commissioners Randall A. Castellani and Joseph J. Corcoran sued, claiming that the characterization was untrue, and later demanded that Henn reveal her source.

Henn’s attorney, Donald H. Brobst, told the Times: “I think this is amending the shield law. Only the Legislature should do that, not the courts.”

Henn resigned from the newspapers, but according to Brobst she left on good terms and is continuing to defend the case jointly with the newspapers.

(Castellani v. The Scranton Times, Media Counsel: Donald H. Brobst, Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; J. Timothy Hinton, Jr., Haggerty McDonnell and O’Brien, Scranton, Pa.)GP


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