The Reporters Committee, joined by a coalition of 38 other media organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief last week in support of a Patch.com reporter in Chicago who was ordered to testify about his confidential source in a murder trial.
Reporter Joseph Hosey was ordered to reveal the identity of the source who supplied him with a police report that contained details of the double murder. The judge in the trial court applied the state's shield law to Hosey but nonetheless found that the privilege had been overcome, finding that the identity of the source was relevant, alternative sources had been exhausted, and the information was essential to protect the public interest. Much of that finding hinged on the fact that the court made 500 law enforcement officials swear that they were not the source, and thus finding out if one of them was lying was "relevant" to the proceedings.
When Hosey still refused to disclose his source, the judge fined him $1,000 plus $300 a day until he complied. Hosey appealed, and the fines are on hold pending resolution of the appeal.
In the amicus brief, the Reporters Committee argued that the lower court misapplied the privilege, because the source of the report was not relevant to the murder trial itself.
"The reporter’s privilege, meant to offer qualified protection to journalists from having to reveal their sources, cannot instead be used as a weapon against those very journalists," the brief argues. "A defendant cannot spring a trap by requiring all potential sources to sign affidavits, under the guise of exhausting all available resources, and then assume that one of them lied and proclaim that discovering the identity of that person is relevant to the proceedings. To preserve the intent and purpose of the statute, the lower court’s decision must be reversed."
The other organizations joining the coalition in Illinois v. McKee were: Allbritton Communications Company; American Society of News Editors; The Associated Press; Association of Alternative Newsmedia; Atlantic Media, Inc.; Bloomberg L.P.; CBS Broadcasting Inc.; The Chicago Headline Club; Courthouse News Service; The Daily Beast; The E.W. Scripps Company; First Amendment Coalition; Fox News Network LLC; Gannett Co., Inc.; Illinois Broadcasters Association; Illinois News Broadcasters Association; Illinois Press Association; Investigative Reporters and Editors; Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University; Journal Communications, Inc.; The McClatchy Company; MediaNews Group, Inc., d/b/a Digital First Media; The National Press Club; National Press Photographers Association; National Public Radio, Inc.; NBCUniversal Media, LLC; Newspaper Association of America; The Newspaper Guild – CWA; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; POLITICO LLC; Radio Television Digital News Association; The Seattle Times Company; Society of Professional Journalists; Stephens Media LLC; Sun-Times Media, LLC; Time Inc.; Tribune Company; and The Washington Post.
About the Reporters Committee
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp .