By Elaine Hargrove-Simon
Wally Wakefield, a Minnesota reporter, has been ordered by Ramsey County District Court Judge Dale B. Lindman to pay a $200 per day fine for refusing to identify confidential sources he used in a story he wrote five years ago. Wakefield's article concerned the firing of Tartan High School's football coach, Richard Weinberger, after Weinberger was accused of misconduct, including maltreatment of the team's players. Wakefield's article in the Maplewood Review contained several statements from unnamed school officials who claimed that Weinberger had intimidated the players.
Although Weinberger sued the school district and four school officials for defamation, he did not sue Wakefield. Instead, in August 2000, Wakefield was subpoenaed to compel him to reveal the identities of his confidential sources. After the trial court ordered him to turn over his sources, the Maplewood Review appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where the lower court's decision was reversed and remanded. In August 2001, Lindman again ordered Wakefield to reveal his sources. When Wakefield still refused, Weinberger's attorney asked Lindman to hold Wakefield in contempt. At a hearing on November 2, 2001, Lindman again asked Wakefield to reveal his sources. Wakefield, who is 71 years old and semi-retired, responded that although he had great respect for the court, he had to honor his promises to his sources. Mark Anfinson, legal counsel for Wakefield, said that a final decision in the case may not come for another six months.
Minnesota's reporter's shield law (the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act, Minn. Stat. section 595.021 - section 595.025) generally protects reporters from revealing confidential sources. However, the law includes an exception for defamation cases in certain circumstances. Those include when it can be shown that the information is relevant to the defamation case, when it cannot be obtained through other means, but only when a journalist or a news organization is a defendant in the case.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, together with the Society of Professional Journalists, the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Minnesota Newspaper Guild Typographical Union filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeals in support of Wakefield. The amicus brief points out that the defamation exception to the Minnesota shield law was intended to apply only in those cases when the media representative subpoenaed is a party to the suit. However, when the media are not parties to the suit, the societal interest in holding the media accountable cannot outweigh the unreasonable burden subpoenas would place on reporters. Calling a broad interpretation of the exception to the Minnesota shield law "chilling," the amicus brief urged a narrower reading of the Act to preserve the relationship between a journalist and his sources.