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Stars and Stripes reporter wins privilege battle

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege    

Stars and Stripes reporter wins privilege battle

  • A U.S. District Court judge ruled that a reporter does not have to reveal sources in court, and a Department of Defense-owned newspaper is covered by the First Amendment.

Oct. 2, 2003 — A reporter’s privilege applies to journalists working for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said reporter Sandra Jontz cannot be forced to reveal the names of confidential sources, ruling that Congress expressly stated that Stars and Stripes “enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment, and military personnel at the frontiers of freedom must enjoy their First Amendment rights.”

Linda Tripp, who gained notoriety after she revealed secret tapes of conversations she had with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, is suing the Department of Defense for violating her privacy by leaking information that she was interviewing for a position at the Department’s George Marshall Center in Germany. Through the discovery process, lawyers for Tripp had sought the names of Jontz’s confidential government sources.

Tripp was an appointee in the Office of Public Affairs at the Pentagon when she was terminated in January 2001, following her role in the scandal that ultimately led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. She interviewed for the Marshall Center position several days after her employment ended.

Tripp alleges that she was humiliated after Stars and Stripes, a daily newspaper for military personnel and their families, published an article about her plans to interview for the Marshall Center position. Tripp says the Marshall Center job was a step down for her. She was not hired for the position.

In July 2002, Tripp sought to obtain Jontz’s notes and the names of her sources. The DOD, which owns and operates Stars and Stripes, countered that Jontz was protected from revealing the information by the reporter’s privilege. Tripp argued that because Stars and Stripes is controlled by the military, it is not a part of the “press” and does not qualify for First Amendment protection.

Judge Sullivan disagreed.

“While it is true that Stars and Stripes is within DOD control, the legislative history of the National Defense Authorization Act reveals that Congress intended the information gathered by editors and reporters and published in Stars and Stripes to be free of interference from the DOD chain of command, provided it is balanced, accurate, and of interest to the readership,” he wrote in his ruling.

Sullivan also noted that Tripp made little effort to try to get the information by other means.

Stars and Stripes editorial director David Mazzarella, quoted in an Oct. 2 Stars and Stripes article, stated that the ruling “forcefully upholds Stars and Stripes‘ independence and First Amendment status, something that is not always easily understood.”

(Tripp v. Department of Defense, Washington, D.C.) KM

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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