Professor Tries To Get Info On Newspaper Commenters

from the shield-laws dept

There have been a bunch of lawsuits lately testing the boundaries of various "shield laws" that protect journalists from having to give up information on sources. There was one recent case that found that even comments on online newspaper articles could be protected by shield laws, as those commenters represented a source. However, a professor in Montana is suing to try to find out the identity of some commenters on a local news article (found via Citizen Media Law Group). The professor had recently lost a lawsuit, and believes that one of the commenters was on the jury -- and that particular comment (which was posted before the case was decided) suggested he had done independent research and believed information (that was false) in making his decision. So, in seeking a new trial, the professor wants the identity of the commenter in question. Attorneys for the professor claim that the juror admitted to writing the post in an affidavit, though the juror now says he did not. Either way, apparently the strong shield laws in Montana mean that the newspaper probably won't have to give up the info.
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Filed Under: comments, journalism, newspapers, shield laws

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  1. icon
    Lance (profile), 10 Jun 2009 @ 7:25am

    The right to confront...

    The idea behind shield laws may sound good on the surface, but it is fraught with the danger that justice may be subverted.

    If I understand the idea behind shield laws properly, they are meant to encourage a person that might be witness to, or have first hand knowledge of, criminal activity to come forward with his/her testimony. Whether that testimony is given in a court room, in the pages of a newspaper, or on a website, the underlying principals seem to be...
    1. They are protected from direct confrontation
    2. They are in direct knowledge of the activity being reported

    The case here is about a "reporter" of information who may, or may not, have that direct knowledge. If the "reporter" was impaneled on the jury hearing the professor's case then one of the following two situations should apply...
    1. If the juror had direct knowledge that applied to the case then he/she should have informed the court that this direct knowledge existed and been excused.
    2. If the juror didn't have direct knowledge then his/her statements would be hearsay. Persons making those kinds of statements should not be accorded the protection provided by shield laws.

    In order to determine whether either of the two scenarios applies, someone must be able to determine whether the "reporter" was a person impaneled on the jury. Shield laws should not be able to be used to thwart justice by preventing the courts from determining if a participant in the justice system is actively doing things that may undermine it.

    Of course all of my above statements are premised on my own thoughts and ideas regarding the use of shield laws. They have no legal standing, as I have no standing as a practitioner in the field of law.

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