Reporter guilty of contempt for publishing settlement details
NORTH CAROLINA–A newspaper reporter faces up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine after a federal district judge in Raleigh found her guilty in mid-December of criminal contempt for publishing information contained in sealed court documents erroneously given to her by a court clerk.
Federal District Judge W. Earl Britt ruled that Kirsten Mitchell, Raleigh bureau chief for The (Wilmington) Morning Star, violated a court order by reporting the terms of a secret settlement agreement between trailer park residents in Wrightsboro and the Conoco Oil Company. In their lawsuit, the residents claimed that company gas leaks contaminated their water supply.
Mitchell was given the court file, which contained a copy of the secret agreement, by a federal court clerk. The document was in an envelope marked “To be opened by the court only.” At a hearing, Mitchell claimed that she did not see that marking prior to reviewing the document, and that she assumed the document had been unsealed because it was given to her as part of the court file and because the envelope was open.
Mitchell’s attorneys asserted in court that the newspaper’s right to publish the information is protected by the First Amendment.
The special prosecutor assigned to the case contended that because the document was marked “confidential settlement agreement,” Mitchell had a duty to ask whether or not the document was public before she published information contained in it. Britt agreed, and held that Mitchell wilfully violated a court order.
The court exonerated of criminal contempt charges another reporter, Cory Reiss, and the newspaper, but is considering possible civil contempt charges. Britt is also considering whether to order Reiss to reveal two anonymous sources quoted in a story he wrote about the settlement.
The settlement came after a jury had decided on a verdict, but the verdict was not announced in open court. According to Mitchell, the settlement was at least $12 million more than the jury’s award. Mitchell’s sentencing is scheduled for late February. (In re Mitchell; Media Counsel: Mark Prak, Raleigh)