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Minn. high court rejects effort to turn over unpublished notes

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected a prosecutor’s effort to force The Free Press [Mankato, Minn.] to turn over its unpublished…

The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected a prosecutor’s effort to force The Free Press [Mankato, Minn.] to turn over its unpublished notes from a telephone interview with a gunman.

The high court let stand the appeals court decision, which held that the newspaper did not have to comply with a subpoena to provide the information because of the reporter’s privilege granted by the state’s shield law.

“It’s important because it strengthens the Minnesota shield law,” said William Ketter, vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., the parent company of The Free Press. “Unless someone can show a compelling need to disclosure information from unpublished information, the press holds the stronger hand.”

The battle stems from an armed standoff that occurred more than a year ago between the gunmen, who took his own life by the end of the seven-hour ordeal, and police. A Free Press reporter was randomly calling houses in the area to get comments and inadvertently phoned the gunmen’s house. A brief interview transpired, and some of that interview was published, while other notes from it were not.

The trial court initially subpoenaed an editor and two reporters from the newspaper for those notes, but the appeals court reversed that decision, citing the shield law.

Ketter said he didn’t know why prosecutors would even need the information, since the only obvious person to prosecute in the case was the gunman, who was no longer alive.

“It sends a strong message to overzealous prosecutors that they can’t just go on fishing expeditions against the news media whenever they’re seeking information for whatever reason,” Ketter said. “In this case, they didn’t even define why they wanted the information.”

Free Press managing editor Joe Spear, who was the editor subpoenaed, said winning this case was crucial to his own newspaper’s ability to gather news, but it also ensured that journalists throughout the state would be protected by the shield law.

“It’s a great victory for the press’ ability to gather news without interference with the government,” Spear said. “If we had let this case go it could have set some sort of precedent that prosecutors would not have to even come close to meeting any of the shield law’s requirements in any case.”