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State high court holds reporter must give up sources

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Confidentiality/Privilege    

State high court holds reporter must give up sources

  • An exception to the state shield law covering libel cases can be used to compel a reporter to identify anonymous speakers in his coverage of a high school employment controversy, the Supreme Court ruled.

Sep. 11, 2003 — The Minnesota Supreme Court decided that a reporter must comply with a court order to reveal his confidential sources, finding that the shield law does not protect him because his evidence is relevant to a libel case. An appellate court had held that the state shield law’s libel exception only applies when journalists are parties to the libel lawsuit.

Maplewood Review reporter Wally Wakefield has fought a two-year battle to protect confidential sources who spoke with him about the firing of ex-football coach and plaintiff Richard Weinburger. Minnesota’s shield law, The Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act, which protects the relationship between reporters and their sources, contains an exception for libel cases.

The Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that the libel exception is only meant to apply in cases in which a reporter is a party to the lawsuit. In Weinburger, the plaintiff brought suit against his former employer, Tartan High School in suburban St. Paul, and subpoenaed Wakefield to reveal his sources at the school.

The Minnesota Supreme Court majority decided that the defamation exception applied to any defamation action and that identifying the sources of the statements could lead to a finding that the statements were made with actual malice. A statement is made with actual malice when made with knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard for whether the statement is false or not.

However, dissenting Justice Helen M. Meyer, joined by Justice Paul H. Anderson, faulted the majority for failing to recognize the purpose of the statute. “The majority applies (the Act) to deny the reporter the First Amendment’s protection, even though the purpose of the (Act) is to provide a shield against disclose of confidential sources — a shield that was intended to give more protection to reporters than is available under the First Amendment,” opined Meyer. Meyer further disagreed with the majority on the issue of actual malice, arguing that the plaintiff had not met his initial burden to show that the statements were in fact false, and therefore defamatory.

Wakefield’s attorney, Mark Anfinson, expressed his disappointment with the ruling, stating that Weinberger has a “clear improbability of ever proving actual malice” and that the ruling is contrary to the intent of the Minnesota shield law.

Wakefield acknowledged the effect the ruling will have on his peers: “This will have tremendous ramifications for all media,” he said.

“All along I thought I was correct about this and I still think I am,” he added.

(Weinberger v. Maplewood Review; Media Counsel: Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis) KM

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