Should a media defendant be able to keep sources confidential in a libel suit?

Everett Square circa 1905. Photo is in the public domain.

Adam Gaffin has a wild story in Universal Hub about a lawsuit filed against the Everett Leader Herald and the city clerk by Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria. There are all kinds of entertaining details. Among other things, we learn that the Leader Herald “has referred to DeMaria as ‘kickback Carlo,’ said he is ‘on the take,’ and referred to ‘DCF,’ or ‘DeMaria’s Crime Family.’”

What caught my eye, though, was that the Leader Herald has agreed to go along with a court order to identify 10 of 12 confidential sources. The names had previously been given to Superior Court Judge James Budreau, who ruled that their claim to anonymity was weak. In the following excerpt from Budreau’s opinion, Resnek is a reference to Joshua Resnek, the publisher and editor.

A threshold question facing the Court is whether Defendants have insufficiently supported their claim that the 12 sources used by Resnik [sic] in the articles core to this litigation were given a promised [sic] of confidentiality in exchange for their information…. Defendant Resnek subsequently filed an affidavit which states that all the sources at issue had “provided information to me based on the promise/understanding that their names/identities would not be revealed and would be kept confidential.” Not only does this averment lack specificity for each of the 11 [?] alleged confidential sources, but it’s unclear whether each source was promised or merely understood or believed that their identities would not be disclosed. If they understood, what was the basis of their understanding?

In other words, the judge concluded that Resnek failed to make a strong case that the sources had been granted confidentiality in the first place. Perhaps that will take the sting out of Resnek’s decision to go along with the judge’s order and allow those sources to be publicly identified.

The problem of keeping sources confidential in a libel case is reminiscent of a dilemma that The Boston Globe faced in 2002, when the paper was sued by Dr. Lois Ayash for incorrectly identifying her as the “leader of a team” that signed off on an overdose of an experimental chemotherapy drug that was given to two patients at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. One of those patients was Globe reporter Betsy Lehman, who died as a result of the overdose.

In that case, the Globe refused an order by Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat to reveal his confidential sources. Lauriat ruled that, because Ayash did not have the evidence she needed to pursue her suit — evidence to which she was entitled as a matter of law — then she should win her case by default.

“The Boston Globe, long a champion of the freedom of information and of unfettered access to public (and even not-so-public) records, has unilaterally and unnecessarily interrupted the free flow of information that may be critical to Ayash,” Lauriat wrote, according to an account by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. A jury awarded her $2 million, a judgment that was upheld by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 2005.

Richard Knox, the Globe reporter whose story was at issue in Ayash’s libel suit, thought the court should have respected his promise not to identify his confidential sources. “I’m disappointed that the courts don’t understand that honoring commitments to sources goes to the heart of what journalists do every day,” he was quoted as saying.

But though Knox and the Globe may have acted out of principle, they were mistaken to think that should have come without a cost. In fact, there is no ironclad legal right for journalists to protect their confidential sources. I’d say that Judge Lauriat made the right call in demanding that the Globe give up its sources; after all, Ayash was entitled to make her best case. The Globe also made the right call, expensive though it was, by saying no.

The situation in Everett, by contrast, is weird and hard to parse. Is Resnek really breaking a promise of confidentiality if the guarantees he made to his sources were not plainly stated, as Judge Budreau suggests? Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what those sources have to say.

One thought on “Should a media defendant be able to keep sources confidential in a libel suit?

  1. Steve Jones-D'Agostino

    Simple, elegant – and legal, ethical – solution. Before granting confidentiality to sources, ask them whether, should a libel suit arise, their identities could be revealed should the case go to trial. First, you won’t have to worry about a judge requiring you – against your will – to reveal sources at trial. Second, you’ll find out whether the sources are willing and able to have their identities revealed should push come to shove. If they aren’t, they could be hiding something that calls into question their credibility. While I was a reporter/editor for nearly 40 years, a source almost always consented to such an agreement.

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