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Newspaper editors protected from revealing confidential sources

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         IOWA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Jun 17, 2002    

Newspaper editors protected from revealing confidential sources

  • The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier sued a community college over alleged violations of the state Open Meetings Act, and the college retaliated by demanding the names of sources that talked confidentially about the meetings.

Two editors for an Iowa newspaper do not have to reveal who talked to them confidentially about a college board’s closed-door meetings that led to the firing of the college president, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on June 12.

Editor Saul Shapiro and Managing Editor Nancy Raffensperger Newhoff of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier were protected by a reporter’s privilege against revealing confidential sources, and they did not waive the privilege, the court ruled.

The newspaper sued Hawkeye Community College in 1999 after the college board held two closed-door meetings that resulted in the president’s firing. The paper claimed that the board violated the state Open Meetings Act.

After the paper filed the lawsuit, the two editors talked with two sources who attended the closed meetings. The editors promised not to reveal the sources’ identities.

In its defense of the open-meetings lawsuit, the board demanded that the editors identify their sources and turn over their notes from those interviews. The trial judge ordered the editors to show him the information in private so that he could review it and decide whether the college should get it.

The state Supreme Court overruled the trial judge.

The college argued that the reporter’s privilege did not apply to the editors because they were not acting as journalists when they interviewed the confidential sources. Instead, they were gathering information for their lawsuit, the college argued.

The high court disagreed, finding that the editors were gathering news that resulted in at least one article for the Courier.

The college claimed that the newspaper had waived the privilege by filing its lawsuit. But the court found that the editors, not the newspaper, held the privilege. Only the editors could waive it, and they had not, the court ruled.

“In fact, to ensure their actions would not constitute a waiver, the Courier and its editors have emphasized the material obtained from the informants will not be used in litigation,” the court noted.

To overcome the privilege, which in Iowa is derived from the federal and state constitutions, the college board had to show that the evidence was necessary and could not be obtained another way. The court ruled that the confidential information was not necessary or critical to the college’s defense of the open-meetings lawsuit.

“The only material relevant to the underlying claim goes to whether the college is a governmental body subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act, whether it conducted closed-session meetings, and, if so, whether it complied with the open meetings law,” the ruling says.

Even if the information was necessary, the college board had “many unexplored avenues” to obtain it, the court ruled. The college knew that eight college trustees and several employees attended the closed meetings. The college had minutes of the meetings. But the board did not try to find out what was said and what occurred at the meetings from anyone other than the Courier editors, the court found.

“The college is in the best position to know exactly what transpired at the board’s meeting,” the ruling says.

(Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier v. Hawkeye Community College; Media counsel: David H. Correll, Correll, Sheerer, Benson, Engels, Galles & Demro, Cedar Falls; Michael A. Giudicessi and William J. Hunnicutt, Faegre & Benson, Des Moines) MD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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