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Judge rules reporter does not have to name confidential source

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         ARIZONA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Feb 28, 2001    

Judge rules reporter does not have to name confidential source

  • The reporter will not be compelled to identify an admitted arsonist who contacted the newspaper to defend his decision to burn a number of new homes.

A Phoenix reporter will not be compelled to reveal the identity of a self-proclaimed serial arsonist after a judge on Feb. 27 granted the newspaper’s motion to quash a grand jury subpoena.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Frank Galati found that Phoenix New Times reporter James Hibberd was protected by the state shield law, but noted that he did not condone the reporter’s actions or the paper’s decision not to contact authorities after an exclusive interview in mid-January with the purported arsonist.

In a phone interview, New Times attorney Mike Meehan said he was satisfied with the decision. “Obviously we believe the judge correctly applied the shield law,” he said.

Meehan also said the prosecution presented “a novel argument that in the face of a shield law, which is pretty broad, that you could make an exception for anyone who could be a perpetrator of a crime.” Deputy County Attorney Paul McMurdie unsuccessfully argued that the arsonist did not qualify as a confidential source, since a crime was committed.

Hibberd also will not have to release any materials he used during the newsgathering process, including a tape-recorded phone conversation with the alleged arsonist, computer disks, or any items that may lead authorities to a group claiming responsibility for the torching of nine luxury homes in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. The prosecutor had asked that such materials be turned over.

Hibberd and the New Times entered the controversy after the weekly magazine received an anonymous letter, titled “Thou Shall Not Desecrate God’s Creation,” from the arsonist, who did not reveal his identity, on Jan. 12. A week later, the paper printed a note on its cover telling “Thou Shall Not” to call the newspaper. After the paper received numerous calls inquiring about the cryptic message, the professed arsonist finally contacted Hibberd for an interview.

Wearing a disguise to meet the reporter, the man told Hibberd that his group of mountain biker “eco-defenders” set the fires to discourage development in the area.

(In the Matter of the Appearance and Attendance Before the Grand Jury Re: James Hibberd; Media Counsel: Mike Meehan, Phoenix) ML

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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