NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MINNESOTA · Confidentiality/Privilege · Feb. 15, 2007
Reporter ordered to give up notes in standoff investigation
Feb. 15, 2007 · A Minnesota judge ruled Tuesday that The (Mankato) Free Press will be required to turn over notes from a phone interview with a man who took his own life during a standoff with police in December.
Jeffrey Skjervold was involved in an armed standoff with police on Dec. 23, during which he wounded two police officers. Authorities were refusing to reveal details of the situation to the Free Press reporter at the scene, so another reporter, Dan Nienaber, called residents in the area that authorities had closed off.
Three hours into the seven-hour standoff, Nienaber reached Skjervold and questioned him about the situation for an article. Hours later, Skjervold killed himself.
County authorities said in court filings that Nienaber’s phone call was upsetting to Skjervold. They want to see the reporter’s notes to determine if Skjervold said anything on the phone that was not in Nienaber’s article the following day.
All subpoenas of journalists must be approved though a hearing in accordance with the Minnesota shield law. During the Feb. 2 hearing, the newspaper said prosecutors had not met the requirements of the state shield law, which requires reporters to divulge information only if it is “clearly relevant” to the prosecution of a gross misdemeanor or felony. Because there is no possibility of prosecuting Skjervold and the county attorney has not identified others who may be prosecuted, the newspaper argued it should not have to turn over the notes.
Judge Norbert Smith rejected that argument, stating: “It is both just and right to compel The Free Press and its reporters to divulge all information regarding the conversation(s) they had with Skjervold. Only then can the unfortunate and traumatic events leading up to the death of Skjervold by his own hand be fully understood.”
The county attorney has not yet specified the details of who exactly is being investigated.
Mark Anfinson, attorney for The Free Press, said he was disturbed that the judge said in his ruling that “it is safe to infer that the call exacerbated Skjervold’s mental state which in turn contributed to taking his own life.”
“This is an ominous development,” Anfinson said. “If this is what the county attorney is thinking too, it could lead to criminal charges of a reporter.” He also points out that the judge does not have any evidence in support of his statement.
The Free Press will appeal the judge’s ruling. Anfinson said there have been no appellate court rulings on the Minnesota shield law since it was amended in 1998 to protect unpublished information, whether or not it would reveal a confidential source.
(In Re: Death Investigation of Jeffrey Alan Skjervold, Media Counsel: Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis) — LM