State appellate decision is first to uphold reporter’s privilege
MISSOURI–In the first recognition of a qualified reporter’s privilege by an appellate court in the state, an appeals court in Kansas City held in late October that a magazine being sued for libel did not have to reveal the names of its confidential sources.
In response to a libel suit filed against rpm magazine in a state circuit court in Kansas City, the publisher and its reporter asserted a privilege against revealing the identities of confidential sources consulted in the preparation of an article on unfair insurance practices in the trucking industry.
Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel of the appellate court, Judge Laura Stith applied a four-factor test to determine whether or not the reporter’s privilege would apply in a libel suit. According to Stith, courts should consider whether the person seeking the identity of a confidential source has exhausted all other means of discovering the source’s identity, how important protecting the source’s identity is under the circumstances, whether the information sought is crucial to the plaintiff’s case, and whether the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence for a defamation claim.
Stith ruled that the plaintiffs in the rpm case did not show that they had tried to find the identities of the sources through other means, although she added, “common sense indicates that it would be very difficult to find alternative sources for the pre-publication sources.” She further held that, if the journalists had to reveal the names of their confidential sources, “their credibility would be seriously harmed and their sources of information would be irreparably damaged.
“The press’ function as a vital source of information is weakened whenever the ability of journalists to gather news is impaired,” she added. (Missouri ex rel. Classic III v. Ely; Media Counsel: Edward Wasmuth, Atlanta)