By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: shield law

Update: McGrory won’t have to reveal source

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory will not be ordered to reveal the identity of a source who told him about a secret sidebar conference involving two jurors in the murder trial of Dwayne Moore.

Moore was the principal suspect in a horrific 2010 multiple murder in Mattapan. His case ended in a mistrial earlier this year, and prosecutors are seeking to bring charges again. Moore’s lawyer had accused the prosecution of leaking the information to McGrory in an attempt to poison the jury pool. But Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke disagree, according to the Globe’s Peter Schworm.

“I don’t see anything in the column that differentiates it from all the other news stories,” Locke was quoted as saying.

Here is my earlier, more detailed post.

A possible collision course over a confidential source

Brian McGrory

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory, who wrote about a secret sidebar conference with two jurors over the recent mistrial involving the Mattapan killings, may be hauled into court and ordered to reveal the identity of a confidential source.

Boston Herald reporter Matt Stout reported on April 3 that John Amabile, the defense lawyer for murder suspect Dwayne Moore, was demanding to know who had leaked information to McGrory about the lone juror whose refusal to convict Moore led to a mistrial. Four people died in the shootings, including a 2-year-old boy.

(Update: The Globe’s Maria Cramer also covered Amabile’s complaint on April 3.)

If the prosecution had leaked to McGrory in defiance of an order by the trial judge, Christine McEvoy, Amabile told the Herald, he might seek to have the charges against his client dismissed.

McGrory, not surprisingly, declined to talk about the matter in any detail when the Herald contacted him, saying, “Obviously I quoted someone in the column on a grant of anonymity, and I hope you would understand that.” And McGrory told his own paper, “Because the information was provided to me under the condition of confidentiality, I obviously can’t reveal the nature of the source.”

The parties were back in court on Tuesday. Cramer reports that Amabile told Suffolk Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke, who’s looking into Amabile’s complaint, that he might subpoena McGrory or prosecutor Edmond Zabin. Cramer writes that “Locke urged him not to do so without seeking the court’s permission.”

And the Herald’s Laurel Sweet, who also reported on the Tuesday hearing, quotes Locke as telling Amabile, “I’m not taking any remedies off the table.”

The inquiry will resume on May 8. If McGrory is asked to attend, it sounds like he’d be well advised to bring a toothbrush.

McGrory would have little to worry about if Massachusetts were not one of 10 states lacking a shield law giving journalists the right to protect their confidential sources. Last month, a legislative committee heard a proposal to create such a law, a broadly defined measure that would appear to protect anyone engaged in journalistic activities, including bloggers and citizen journalists.

The McGrory situation shows why a shield law could be beneficial. Whoever leaked to him was confident that the Globe would not reveal his identity. It is clearly in the public interest to get as many details about the Mattapan case out into the open as possible.

If Amabile’s complaint somehow leads to the source’s identity being revealed, that would have a chilling effect on the next insider who’s tempted to pick up the phone and call a reporter.

Note: This post has been corrected and updated.

Proposed Mass. shield law appears to protect bloggers

The Massachusetts Legislature this week will consider, once again, whether journalists should be protected from subpoenas ordering them to give up their confidential sources or turn over unused notes, video footage and the like.

According to Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the bill, called the “Free Flow of Information Act,” will be the subject of a public hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Tuesday at 1 p.m. The bill is being sponsored by state Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley.

In an era defined by blogging, social media and citizen journalism, one of the key questions that comes up whenever shield laws are discussed is who should be covered. Many of us argue that it’s journalism, not journalists, that should be protected, and that if a lone blogger is able to convince a judge that she’s engaged in bona fide journalism, then she should be covered just as fully as someone who’s on staff at the Boston Globe.

Fortunately, the bill being considered this week appears to allow for exactly that. I’ve asked Ambrogi for clarification (he has since weighed in, below), but what I’m looking at is the definition of “news media,” which is described in the bill as follows (my emphasis):

[A]ny newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book publisher, news agency, wire service, radio or television station or network, cable or satellite station or network, or audio or audiovisual production company, or any entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means, including, but not limited to, print, broadcast, photographic, mechanical, internet, or electronic distribution.

The bill specifies very strict protection for anonymous sources and less strict protection for unused notes, footage and other materials accumulated in the course of newsgathering but not actually used. That’s in accord with longstanding legal tradition, so no surprise there. There’s an exception “to prevent imminent and actual harm to public security from acts of terrorism” as well.

Ambrogi reports that Massachusetts is now just one of 10 states that does not have a shield law. But the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has recognized a limited right for reporters to protect their sources. In fact, the only state with no shield protection whatsoever is Wyoming.

By far the most significant gap is the lack of a federal shield law, compounded by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Branzburg v. Hayes that journalists do not have a constitutional right to protect their sources. That gap has been exploited by federal authorities in states where journalists would otherwise have shield protection — such as the cases of Jim Taricani in Rhode Island and Josh Wolf in California.

The bill being considered this week has come up before, and I don’t know whether there’s any more reason to think it will pass now than it has in previous years. Personally, I’m lukewarm on shield laws, since they can give an already-skeptical public reason to believe that the media are a privileged class.

But the Massachusetts bill appears to be carefully drafted, and would do no more than level the playing field with respect to most other states.

Instant update: I just heard from Ambrogi, who confirms that the bill would give citizen journalists a chance to argue that they should be entitled to shield-law protections as well — although he cautions that the word “business” might mean they have to be “at least trying to derive some income from the citizen journalism.”

Appeal filed in bloggers-aren’t-journalists case

Lawyer-blogger Eugene Volokh has filed an appeal in the matter of the Montana blogger who lost a $2.5 million libel case after a federal judge ruled she was not entitled to the legal protections enjoyed by journalists.

“The motion for new trial,” Volokh writes, “argues that the First Amendment applies equally to all who speak to the public, whether or not they belong to the institutional media.”

I wrote about the case last month for the Huffington Post. In a nutshell, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that Crystal Cox, a self-described “investigative blogger,” could not be considered a journalist under Oregon law, where she was sued. Hernandez wrote that he reached that conclusion because Cox did not work for a newspaper or broadcast outlet, and because she lacked training and failed to demonstrate professional standards.

Hernandez’s ruling had two effects. First, Cox could not invoke Oregon’s shield law to protect her source or sources, whose identity was sought by the plaintiffs, a financial-services company and one of its executives. That ruling was actually of little account, since even established media organizations can’t invoke shield laws to defend themselves against libel suits.

Of far more importance was Hernandez’s ruling that the plaintiffs would not have to prove Cox had acted negligently — only that what she had published was false and defamatory. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that libel plaintiffs must prove the defendant acted with some degree of fault, with negligence as the lowest standard the states could require. But, seizing on an ambiguity in the wording, Hernandez claimed the Gertz protection only applies to professional journalists.

Volokh, by contrast, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear for many decades that journalists do not enjoy any special protections under the First Amendment — meaning that any rulings the court has made about the press apply to everyone, not just to those carrying a press pass from a newspaper or television station. (Which was the main thrust of my Huffington Post commentary.) According to the brief, filed by Volokh and Benjamin Souede:

[W]hile the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision establishes what Oregon state libel law is, it is the judgments of the United States Supreme Court that are controlling on the First Amendment question. The United States Supreme Court has never held that the institutional press enjoys such extra rights. All the federal courts of appeals that have considered this question have specifically held that the institutional press lacks any such extra rights.

As several people who’ve looked at this case have reported, most notably David Carr of the New York Times, there is ample evidence that Crystal Cox’s conduct was reprehensible, and that the plaintiffs — Obsidian Financial Group and one of its executives, Kevin Padrick — might easily have won their libel case even if they had been required to meet the Gertz negligence standard.

What makes this case important is not Cox, but rather the principle that all of us — not just professional journalists — should be able to speak and write freely without inadvertently running afoul of libel laws.

More on the journalists-aren’t-bloggers ruling

The redoubtable David Carr has an interesting column in today’s New York Times in which he reports that “investigative blogger” Crystal Cox’s conduct was considerably beyond the pale of what anyone would consider journalism. (My Huffington Post commentary on the case is here.)

But if her behavior was that egregious, then the plaintiffs should have had no problem convincing a jury that she acted negligently (or worse). The negligence standard is a vital constitutional protection regardless of whether those benefitting from it are sympathetic figures.

In order to prove libel, a plaintiff must show that information published or broadcast about him was false and defamatory. Starting with the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court began to require a third element as well: fault. The regime that’s in effect today was solidified by the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. Here’s what the courts mean by “fault”:

  • A public official or public figure must show that what was published or broadcast about him was done so with knowing falsity, or with “reckless disregard” of whether it was true or false.
  • A private figure must show that the defendant acted negligently when it published or broadcast false, defamatory information about the plaintiff.

U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez, in his pretrial ruling, obliterated the fault requirement for any defendant except those he deems to be journalists, ignoring the Supreme Court’s longstanding position that the First Amendment applies equally to all of us — for the “lonely pamphleteer” as much as for major newspaper publishers, as Justice Byron White put it in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972).

Hernandez’s contention that journalists enjoy greater free-speech protections than non-journalists is an outrage, and should not be allowed to stand.

Making sense of that journalists-aren’t-bloggers ruling

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I take a look at that bloggers-aren’t-journalists ruling in Oregon. And I argue that the case has nothing to do with the shield law, and everything to do with the dangerous cultural schism between journalists and the rest of society — and a judge who wants to widen it.

The future of journalism and the law

This Friday I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion titled “The Future of Journalism: Law and Ethics in a Changing Media Ecosystem.” It’s part of an all-day conference called “Journalism’s Digital Transition: Unique Legal Challenges and Opportunities,” sponsored by the Citizen Media Law Project and to be held at Harvard Law School.

Our panel, to be held from 3:10 to 5 p.m., will focus on issues such as whether shield laws can be crafted so that bloggers and citizen journalists can protect their confidential sources, and if the shift toward nonprofit journalism means fewer First Amendment rights. (Among other things, non-profit organizations may not endorse political candidates.)

The other panelists:

The moderator will be Phil Malone, clinical professor of law and director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Coakley gets it wrong on shield law

Martha Coakley

Martha Coakley

Bill Densmore has posted a crowdsourced Q&A with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. (Disclosure: As you’ll see if you read it all the way through, I helped with one of the questions.)

I have not read the entire interview, but I did read her answer to a question about whether she would support a federal shield law to protect journalists who are ordered to reveal their confidential sources.

Coakley’s answer is troublesome, as she replies that she supports protection for “bona fide journalists.” I take that to mean card-carrying members of the mainstream media.

I am dubious of shield laws, and believe an absolute law would likely be ruled unconstitutional. At most, shield laws should require a judge to rule on whether a journalist’s testimony is necessary and if there might be some alternative way of getting the same information, as outlined by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision. (Alas, Stewart was on the losing side, and his proposed balancing test has led a tortured existence.)

But whatever is protected, it ought to be journalism, not journalists. If an amateur blogger is engaging in journalism, then she should have just as much protection as a press-pass-wielding reporter. The test shouldn’t be who you are — it should be what you do.

A privilege for the privileged

Amy Gahran of the Poynter Institute writes that a proposed federal shield law would actually be a step backwards. Under the original version, the bill would protect “a person engaged in journalism” from having to reveal his or her anonymous sources, a definition seemingly elastic enough to cover bloggers.

The new version, by contrast, covers “A person who, for financial gain or livelihood [Gahran’s emphasis], is engaged in journalism,” which would largely restrict the shield law’s protections to professional journalists. Gahran writes:

Journalism is a practice, not a priesthood. At its core it’s about committing acts of journalism, not about getting a degree, being employed, or even getting paid. I think a federal shield law with such exclusive language would only serve to diminish the practice and independence of journalism, especially among people who are sticking their necks out entirely on their own to do it.

She adds that she hopes President Bush vetoes it. (Don’t worry; he will.)

As we’ve seen in recent years, journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources if they’re call into court to testify. Judith Miller‘s case is the best-known, but there are many others as well.

Forty-nine states either have shield laws or state-court opinions that essentially require judges to consider all other options before forcing journalists to testify. But there is no such protection at the federal level, which is why Congress is now considering such legislation.

The trouble is, as Gahran notes, the First Amendment recognizes no special privileges for journalists as a class. Nor should it. The First Amendment is for all of us. By passing a shield law that protects journalism as an activity, Congress would be honoring the spirit of the First Amendment. The change Gahran rightly worries about would only protect members of the “priesthood.”

It would be interesting to learn why the language was changed, and who was behind it.

NPR’s “On the Media” has a good summation of the shield-law debate.

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