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Reporter ordered to reveal sources or pay $200-a-day fine

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Nov 14, 2001    

Reporter ordered to reveal sources or pay $200-a-day fine

  • A newspaper story published nearly five years ago that quoted unnamed sources who criticized a fired high school football coach has prompted a contempt fine against a newspaper reporter.

A reporter for a weekly newspaper in Minnesota must decide by Nov. 23 whether to appeal a judge’s order to reveal confidential sources or pay a $200-a-day fine.

The fine could exceed $36,000 since the underlying defamation case will not go to trial for six months, said Mark R. Anfinson, attorney for reporter Wally Wakefield.

“It’s definitely going to have the potential for deterring other governmental sources from talking to reporters under a promise of confidentiality,” Anfinson said.

Wakefield, a reporter for the Maplewood Review in suburban St. Paul, wrote an article published in January 1997 after Richard Weinberger was fired as football coach at Tartan High School. The school fired Weinberger because of accusations of misconduct and maltreatment of his 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 several school officials for defamation, and he subpoenaed Wakefield to learn the identities of the confidential sources.

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

Ramsey County District Judge Dale B. Lindman ordered Wakefield on Aug. 8 to identify the sources of 10 statements in the story. The judge ruled that Weinberger’s need for the information outweighed the reporter’s need to keep sources confidential. Weinberger had no alternative means for unmasking the sources, and disclosure would be the only way Weinberger could match each statement to a defendant, Lindman ruled.

On Nov. 6, the judge found Wakefield in contempt of that order and told Wakefield to either comply with the order or appeal by Nov. 23. If Wakefield fails to do either, the $200-a-day fine will begin Nov. 24.

Wakefield isn’t considering complying, Anfinson said.

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

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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