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Pennsylvania high court upholds absolute reporter's privilege

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
A reporter who used a confidential source to report about a grand jury proceeding can keep her source’s identity a…

A reporter who used a confidential source to report about a grand jury proceeding can keep her source’s identity a secret, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.

The high court ruled that the state shield law grants an absolute privilege to journalists, and protects their source’s identities from compelled disclosure in all cases – civil, criminal and grand jury proceedings.

“The Shield Law was enacted to protect the free flow of information to the news media in their role as information providers to the general public,” Chief Justice Ronald Castille wrote.

The suit arose when former Scranton Times reporter Jennifer Henn wrote a handful of stories about an investigation into wrongdoing at the Lackawanna County Prison. In her reporting, Henn quoted a confidential source who described secret grand jury testimony from former county commissioners.

The commissioners filed a lawsuit against Henn and her employer for defamation and in the process issued subpoenas to Henn seeking the identity of her confidential source.

The commissioners argued that the leaking of the grand jury testimony was a crime, and they urged the court to carve out an exception to the shield law for communications between reporters and sources that were criminal acts, as some other states have done.

But the court did not agree.

Castille refused to carve out any exceptions to the statute, and further opined that it was the source’s leak, and not the journalist’s coverage, that constituted a crime under the Grand Jury Act.

“The news media have a right to report news, regardless of how the information was received,” the justice wrote.

Attorney Kevin Abbott, who represented The Scranton Times, said it was a good decision for the Pennsylvania media. Several cases in recent years have slowly eroded the absolute privilege and Abbott said he was pleased this court upheld it.

“We’re happy that they upheld an absolute privilege,” he said. “It’s absolute and [the court] is not at liberty to create exceptions. The Supreme Court said that the state legislature meant what it said in the law.”