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Reporter wins appeal of order to disclose confidential sources

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Jun 19, 2002    

Reporter wins appeal of order to disclose confidential sources

  • The Minnesota Court of Appeals overruled a trial judge who had threatened Wally Wakefield with a $200-a-day fine if the reporter did not reveal his sources.

A part-time sports reporter for a Minnesota weekly newspaper does not have to reveal his confidential sources for a story he wrote about a fired high school football coach, the state Court of Appeals ruled on June 18.

The appeals court overruled a trial judge who found Maplewood Review reporter Wally Wakefield in contempt of court in November 2001 for refusing to reveal the sources. The trial judge ordered Wakefield to pay a $200-a-day fine, which was suspended while Wakefield appealed.

The appeals court based its ruling in part on the chilling effect that compelled disclosure of confidential sources would have on the media.

“Compelling disclosure of confidential sources of statements in an article about a public official, for the purpose of making the reporter a witness against sources, has significant potential to interfere with a reporter’s ability to gather news,” Judge Terri J. Stoneburner wrote for the three-judge panel.

Richard Weinberger subpoenaed Wakefield to disclose the sources of statements in an article Wakefield wrote in January 1997 about Weinberger’s firing from Tartan High School. The article contained several statements from unnamed sources who said Weinberger intimidated Tartan football players.

Weinberger sued the school district and four district employees for defamation. He did not include the suburban St. Paul newspaper or Wakefield in the lawsuit.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several other media groups argued in a friend-of-the-court brief to the appeals court that Wakefield should be allowed to keep his sources’ identities secret because he is not a party in the case.

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.

The exception does not apply to Wakefield, the appeals court ruled. Before he could force Wakefield to identify the sources, Weinberger had to show that the statements were false or were made with actual malice, meaning that the people who made the statements either knew what they said was untrue or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Weinberger did not show that the statements were false or made with actual malice, the court ruled.

Weinberger argued that he needed Wakefield’s testimony to establish actual malice. The appeals court responded that Weinberger wanted to make Wakefield a witness against the defendants.

Weinberger also failed to show that forcing Wakefield to reveal confidential sources would lead to relevant evidence in the defamation lawsuit, the court ruled.

The court found that Wakefield’s concern about the chilling effect on newsgathering was at least as great as Weinberger’s interest in obtaining the information. The public also has an interest in the outcome of the case, the court noted.

“The article qualifies as having great public interest and the public would be harmed by any chilling effect on the free flow of this type of information to the public,” the ruling said.

(Weinberger v. Maplewood Review; Media counsel: Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis) MD

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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