SOUTH CAROLINA–A reporter faces possible jail time after the Supreme Court in Columbia in early July affirmed a trial judge’s order finding Twila Decker, a reporter for The (Columbia) State, in contempt of court for refusing to reveal her confidential sources for a news story.
In late May, Judge William Howard of Circuit Court in Union ordered Decker to jail after she refused to reveal her confidential sources for the contents of a mental competency report concerning murder defendant Susan Smith that was ordered sealed by Howard. Howard’s incarceration order was stayed by the Supreme Court pending its review of the case.
The Supreme Court ruled that the South Carolina shield law was inapplicable to the case, because the shield law applies only to “a party” seeking information. The court ruled that the trial judge, who sought the information from Decker, was not a party to the case. The court also stated that even if the shield law applied, the judge satisfied the requirements necessary to overcome the statutory privilege.
The court also held that no qualified privilege based on the First Amendment applied under the circumstances of Decker’s case. The court ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Branzburg v. Hayes did not establish a First Amendment privilege for reporters. Rather, the court found that Branzburg simply recognized that news gathering is entitled to First Amendment protection in certain limited circumstances.
The court also stated that even if a constitutional qualified privilege existed, it was “patently outweighed” by the trial court’s interest in enforcing its secrecy order.
The court ruled that Decker must divulge her sources or “suffer the consequences of her contempt” of the trial court’s order. (In the Matter of Twila Decker; Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Columbia)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.