By Elaine Hargrove-Simon, Silha Fellow and Bulletin editor
In mid-June, 2002, a Minnesota Court of Appeals panel reversed a lower court ruling that held Maplewood Review reporter Wally Wakefield in contempt for not revealing his sources in a libel suit, releasing Wakefield from contempt charges and a $200 a day fine. (See Winter 2002 Bulletin, "Minnesota Shield Law Facing Test" and Weinberger v. Maplewood Review et al. (2002 Minn. App. LEXIS 711 (Minn. Ct. App. 2002)) Weinberger, a football coach for a local high school, had been fired from his job following accusations of misconduct. Wakefield had covered the story for the Maplewood Review, incorporating statements from unnamed school officials who alleged that Weinberger had intimidated the players. Weinberger sued the school district and four school officials for defamation. Wakefield himself was not sued, but in August 2000, he was subpoenaed to reveal the identities of the confidential sources. Wakefield refused. At a November 2001 hearing, he was found in contempt of court and was fined $200 a day. Wakefield appealed his case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Presiding Judge Terri Stoneburner, joined by Judges Harten and Anderson, wrote that five interrelated factors had to be considered before a reporter could be compelled to reveal confidential sources in libel cases: 1) the relevance of the source's identity to the action; 2) the availability of the information from alternative sources; 3) whether a compelling interest in the information or the source exists; 4) whether the nature of the litigation is sufficiently compelling to warrant the disclosure of a confidential source, and 5) whether the defamatory statements were false and made with actual malice.
Stoneburner wrote that Weinberger had not proven that any of the statements made against him were made with actual malice. She further stated that Wakefield was not named in the defamation suit, and Weinberger himself admitted to the district court that he does not suspect either Wakefield or the Maplewood Review of creating falsely attributed statements. Because Wakefield could not speak to the intentions of those who furnished information to him, Weinberger sought to have them identified so they might be forced to reveal their intentions - and whether or not they had malicious intent - for themselves.
Stoneburner acknowledged that Wakefield's article had "great public interest and the public would be harmed by any chilling effect on the free flow of this type of information." She noted that Wakefield's affidavit stated that his sources had said they would not be willing to provide information to him if as their identities were revealed because they feared retaliation from Weinberger. "[T]he ability of the press to gather information about public officials is at' least as great as Weinberger's interest in the disclosure ordered in this case," Stoneburner wrote. ". . . [T]he chilling effect and burden on the media that will result from making a reporter a witness against sources to whom he promised confidentiality are more significant than Weinberger's interest in the disclosure and his inability to obtain the information he seeks from other sources."
Weinberger and his attorney are appealing the appeals court's decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.