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Reporter challenges $200-a-day contempt of court order

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Nov 20, 2001    

Reporter challenges $200-a-day contempt of court order

  • A sports reporter was held in contempt of court for refusing to reveal anonymous sources who made critical comments about a high school football coach.

A sports reporter for a weekly newspaper in suburban St. Paul, Minn., will appeal a judge’s order that he identify confidential sources for a story he wrote nearly five years ago.

The appeal means that Wally Wakefield will avoid a fine of $200 per day that the judge said he would impose on Nov. 24 if Wakefield either did not divulge the sources or file an appeal.

“There’s no way I can afford $200 a day,” said Wakefield, a 71-year-old retired elementary school teacher who has written for the Maplewood Review for 20 years.

Wakefield wrote an article published in January 1997 after Tartan High School fired its football coach, Richard Weinberger, as a result of accusations of misconduct and maltreatment of the team’s players, according to court records.

Wakefield’s article contained several statements from unnamed school officials who said Weinberger intimidated Tartan football players. Weinberger sued the school district and four school officials for defamation, but he did not sue Wakefield or the newspaper. Instead, Weinberger subpoenaed Wakefield to learn the identities of the confidential sources.

Minnesota’s shield law generally protects reporters from revealing confidential sources. However, the law includes an exception for defamation cases in which a court can order disclosure.

Wakefield’s attorney, Mark R. Anfinson, said he will argue to the Minnesota Court of Appeals that an identification of Wakefield’s sources is not necessary because Weinberger cannot prove that the four defendants acted with actual malice, meaning that they made any of the statements knowing the comments were false or with reckless disregard for the truth. Also, if people other than the defendants were the sources for the story, it’s too late for Weinberger to sue them because the statute of limitations has expired, Anfinson said.

Wakefield is not sure he can recall who was the source for each of the 10 statements Ramsey County District Judge Dale B. Lindman wanted identified.

“But the issue is greater than whether or not I can remember,” Wakefield said. “The issue is the ability of a reporter to maintain his sources’ confidences.”

(Weinberger v. Independent School District No. 622; Media Counsel: Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis) MD

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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