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Reporter not liable for allegedly revealing name of confidential source

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege         Sep 12, 2000    

Reporter not liable for allegedly revealing name of confidential source

  • A news reporter does not create a binding contract by promising to protect the confidentiality of a source, a federal judge ruled.

A federal judge dismissed a case brought against a Newsweek reporter for allegedly failing to honor an agreement not to reveal his source. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington, D.C. ruled Sept. 6 that a reporter’s oral promise of confidentiality to a source does not constitute an enforceable contract.

Julie Hiatt Steele sued reporter Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, and its parent company The Washington Post Co. after publication of stories naming Steele as a source of information for President Clinton’s alleged groping of Kathleen Willey. Steele claimed the defendants broke an agreement not to name her, although Steele admitted she lied about her knowledge of the alleged incident.

The judge ruled the First Amendment barred Steele’s recovery. The defendants urged the court to find that all of the plaintiff’s claims were “a thinly disguised effort to collect damages for defamation without meeting the constitutional requirements of a defamation claim.” The court agreed the reputational aspects were unconstitutional but left open the possibility that other parts of the claims were “non-reputational.”

Steele claimed Isikoff breached an oral contract by revealing her name in a story. Declaring this an area of first impression, the court held that contract law was not an appropriate theory to support enforcement of a reporter’s promise of confidentiality.

Steele could not enforce a contractual obligation, the judge reasoned, because she violated her duty of good faith and fair dealing by lying to the reporter. Applying Virginia law, the judge rejected Steele’s promissory estoppel claim because the state does not recognize the doctrine in a breach of contract context. Steele had “unclean hands” because she lied, the court held, and therefore her claim for unjust enrichment also failed. Under the unclean hands doctrine, a plaintiff who seeks an equitable remedy, such as unjust enrichment, must be free from fraud or deceit in the transaction.

The judge denied Steele’s claims of fraud and misrepresentation because the harm she alleged was “rooted in her own lie, a deception by which she alone tied herself to a sordid news story that dominated all types of media.”

Steele’s claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress failed because Steele herself was the catalyst of the harm and because Isikoff’s behavior was not outrageous enough to warrant a claim, the court found.

Finally, the judge found no fiduciary duty existed between Steele and Isikoff, calling their relationship “too fleeting and too superficial.”

(Steele v. Isikoff; Media Counsel: Roger Spaeder, Washington, D.C.) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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