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Shield law protects author's notes, documents in defamation case

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Shield law protects author's notes, documents in defamation case 05/17/99 WASHINGTON, D.C.--A District of Columbia trial judge ruled in early…

Shield law protects author’s notes, documents in defamation case


WASHINGTON, D.C.–A District of Columbia trial judge ruled in early May that a book author’s journalistic notes and documents deserve protection under the District’s shield law, even though the materials presumably have some relevance to libel claims brought against the author.

Author Sean McPhilemy’s book, “The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland,” describes widespread collusion between British security forces and anti-Catholic terrorists, and spawned a libel suit in which two Protestant businessmen from Norther Ireland claim the book falsely accuses them of involvement in political murders.

During pre-trial discovery, the businessmen sought to obtain McPhilemy’s notes and other documents that might support their libel claim, but McPhilemy asserted that the information was protected under the District’s shield law.

McPhilemy, a journalist who has worked for print and television outlets in Great Britain and has produced numerous documentaries for the BBC, researched the book outside the United States, but a Colorado corporation dedicated to promoting Irish culture published the book and distributed it in the United States.

Neither McPhilemy nor the businessmen live in the United States, but the U.S. publication and dissemination established the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia court.

In upholding the use of the shield law, Judge Geoffrey Alprin noted that the District of Columbia “has expressed a strong public interest in promoting the public’s interest in receipt of ‘news and information by allowing sources to speak freely without attribution.'”

Alprin rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the statute was not designed to insulate journalists from liability in libel suits, noting that such an exception is not mentioned in either the statute itself or in the legislative history of the law.

The shield law provides an absolute privilege against disclosure of sources and a qualified privilege for protecting other information obtained in the newsgathering process.

The court concluded that it could not compel production of the documents because the language of the shield law does not contain an “express exemption for defamation cases” and because the businessmen could not show an overriding public interest in disclosure.

Alprin rejected the argument that McPhilemy could not assert the privilege for information gathered overseas, ruling that the businessmen could not invoke the jurisdiction of the court and then expect that court to deny McPhilemy the protections of District of Columbia law.

An independent review conducted by a barrister in Great Britain found McPhilemy’s research to be neither untrue nor reckless, and the London Sunday Express recently agreed to pay McPhilemy 132,000 pounds in damages and attorney’s fees to settle claims made by McPhilemy that the paper falsely accused him of dishonesty in reporting on the collusion and murders. (Prentice v. McPhilemy; Media Counsel: Russell Smith, New York City)