By Christopher B. Daly
Invoking journalism history, New York state’s highest court has ruled that under New York’s state constitution and the state’s version of a “shield law,” a journalist cannot be forced to divulge the identity of a confidential source — even if another U.S. state is trying to extract the information. The ruling, issued Tuesday, was a major victory for press freedom, and not just in New York. But it will have its greatest impact in New York, where so much of the news media operate, because now the highest court in that state has ruled that New York’s own laws grant complete immunity to journalists from any attempts to force them to reveal their sources. Since that court is the ultimate interpreter of the New York state constitution, it is a landmark.
It remains to be seen if a New York journalist can use this new ruling as a shield against federal prosecutors. Federal courts are not obligated to follow the New York state court ruling, of course, but any person who gains more rights under a state constitution or law does not forfeit those rights just because federal law has not caught up. The U.S. Constitution and federal laws establish legal minimums that must be afforded to all Americans, but they do not establish maximums. When it comes to our rights, federal law is a floor, not a ceiling.
Briefly, the case involves Jana Winter, a reporter for FoxNews.com. She went to Colorado in 2012 to report on the horrific mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora. Expecting a media frenzy, the local Colorado court imposed a “gag order” — that is, a pre-trial order that tries to limit disclosures to the news media in advance of a trial. During the investigation into the crime, police got hold of a notebook that belonged to the suspect, James Holmes, which he had shared with his psychiatrist. Someone divulged the existence of the notebook to the reporter, along with a summary or description of its contents. Colorado authorities consider that a breach of the gag order, and they are stamping their feet to see who disobeyed. All the cops in Colorado say “it wasn’t me,” so the authorities are turning to the journalist and demanding that she rat out her source so they can punish that person. For that, they want to make her travel 2,000 miles to violate a promise she made to her source(s). If she stands firm and refuses to name names, she goes to jail. If she gives them up, she is ruined as a reporter, and the whole enterprise of news-gathering is undermined because all sources will doubt all reporters when they promise confidentiality. [Winter has absolutely no information that is exclusive to her and based on confidential sources that has any bearing on the commission of the crime itself. All she knows about is which Colorado cop (or cops) violated the gag order. Please.]
Many, many courts would rule against the journalist in these circumstances. Judges normally sympathize with their fellow judges and see things their way. Judges normally do not like to see anyone violate their rulings and get away with it. Judges like the idea that what they say, goes. All of which makes this ruling even more remarkable. It was a win-win: the court expanded legal protections for reporters, and it relied in part on a famous case involving an 18th-century partisan journalist to do so.
Here are versions by the New York Times (which should have put this on page 1, not inside the business section) The New Yorker, TVNewser, and Poynter. (Even Fox News had to come down on the side of press freedom in this case.)
Here is the text of the decision, written by Judge Victoria Graffeo. Among the stories I saw, only Poynter actually linked to the decision, which is disappointing — hey, people, there’s this thing called the Internet; let’s take advantage of it. Besides, the decision is well worth reading in full. It is a pro-freedom primer on the history of the freedom to gather news. Here are some key excerpts:
New York has a long tradition, with roots dating back to the colonial era, of providing the utmost protection of freedom of the press. Our recognition of the importance of safeguarding those who provide information as part of the newsgathering function can be traced to the case of “John Peter Zenger who . . . was prosecuted for publishing articles critical of the New York colonial Governor after he refused to disclose his source” (Matter of Beach v Shanley, 62 NY2d 241, 255  [Wachtler concurrence]). A jury comprised of colonial New Yorkers refused to convict Zenger — an action widely viewed as one of the first instances when the connection between the protection of anonymous sources and the maintenance of a free press was recognized in the new world. In acknowledging the critical role that the press would play in our democratic society, New York became a hospitable environment for journalists and other purveyors of the written word, leading the burgeoning publishing industry to establish a home in our state during the early years of our nation’s history.
That is an important point: New York did indeed become the nation’s media capital. I doubt that the New York State Constitution was much of a causal factor (compared to all the economic ones), but the fact that the industry is now centered in New York City means that many, many journalists enjoy the favored status granted by this new ruling. And the ruling holds that a New York-based journalist is protected by New York’s constitution even when he or she roams into another state or online to do reporting. What remains to be seen is what might happen when a New York-based journalist attempts to use the new ruling in the Winter case against a federal prosecutor who comes around with a subpoena seeking to force a journalist to name a confidential source in a federal investigation or trial.
Judge Graffeo wrote that the protections offered to journalists in New York are ancient, robust, and multiply determined.
To begin with, she wrote, there is the matter of common law. Before New York was even a state, the jury in the 1735 seditious libel case against the printer John Peter Zenger established through its not-guilty verdict that Zenger did not have to reveal the identity of the author of the offending article. The Zenger case is usually cited as a precedent for the idea that truth is a valid defense in libel cases, but if Judge Graffeo finds the germ of a “shield law” in there, so be it. (For more on Zenger, see “Covering America,” chap 1)
Later, New York citizens wrote and ratified a state constitution. It says, in part:
“Every citizen may freely speak, write and
publish his or her sentiments on all subjects
. . . and no law shall be passed to restrain
or abridge the liberty of speech or of the
press” (NY Const, art I, § 8).
In her reading, that language from 1831 constitutes a shield for journalists all by itself, saying it is more expansive than even the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and thus affords more protections to New Yorkers than other Americans enjoy under the First Amendment alone.
In addition, Graffeo cites New York state law. In 1970, the New York Legislature adopted a “shield law” that includes an absolute legal privilege for journalists who want to protect the identity of their confidential sources. She said that after considering the views of the likes of Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace, the Legislature decided to throw its weight into the balance on the side of reporters. The relevant part of that law says:
no professional journalist or newscaster . . .
shall be adjudged in contempt by any court in
connection with any civil or criminal
proceeding . . . for refusing or failing to
disclose any news obtained or received in
confidence or the identity of the source of
any such news coming into such person’s
possession in the course of gathering or
obtaining news for publication
So, Judge Graffeo concludes, journalists in New York are protected by common law, constitutional law, and statutory law. Now, how hard was that? Why do so many judges fail to understand this reasoning? The ruling holds that all these sources of protection for journalists combine to provide evidence of a clear “public policy” in New York state to encourage the practice of journalism within its borders.
But Judge Graffeo was not finished. She noted that the testimony of the journalists that the New York legislators relied upon arose from another case — that of NYTimes reporter Earl Caldwell. In a footnote, she observed
The affidavits were prepared in connection with a motion
to quash a subpoena in a case that was pending when the Shield
Law was under consideration by the Legislature and which involved
an investigative reporter from the New York Times who was
subpoenaed by a Federal Grand Jury in California to testify
concerning knowledge he obtained about the Black Panther
organization. Two lower courts held that the First Amendment
protected the reporter from being compelled to reveal his sources
or disclose information provided to him in confidence, differing
only on whether the reporter could avoid appearing at the Grand
Jury altogether (Caldwell v United States, 434 F2d 1081 [9th Cir
1970] [reporter could not be compelled to appear at Grand Jury],
vacating 311 F Supp 358 [ND Cal 1970][although required to appear
Caldwell, left, with MLK in Memphis, 1968.
at Grand Jury, reporter was entitled to protective order
precluding questioning concerning confidential sources or
information]). However, deciding the case with Branzburg v Hayes
(408 US 665 ), the United States Supreme Court disagreed,
holding that the reporter could not rely on the First Amendment
to avoid appearing and giving evidence in response to a Grand
That was a regrettable decision that journalists lost by an eyelash, only because five judges on the U.S. Supreme Court did not understand the U.S. Constitution as well as these New York judges understand the New York constitution. For more on Caldwell, see Covering America, chap 12. For more on the Supreme Court’s ruling, see earlier blog posts here and here.)
The new ruling also sends a message to prosecutors in all the other states: don’t bother going on fishing expeditions. If you send us requests to compel a New York journalist to appear in your state’s courts, those will be denied. The opinion says New York will not tolerate harassment of journalists by subpoenaing them to show up halfway across the country just to assert their immunity under the New York shield law. That would be terribly disruptive to their work. Just leave them alone, the court said. Quoting an earlier case, the ruling states:
“Journalists should be spending their time in newsrooms, not in courtrooms as participants in the litigation process”
It’s thrilling to read a judicial opinion written by a judge who actually understands the meaning of a free press and appreciates its value to society. It’s rare — and therefore, I suppose, all the more thrilling.
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Finally, a hat-tip to the judge, Victoria Graffeo, the former solicitor general for the state of New York who was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Republican Gov. George Pataki to a 14-year term in 2000. No liberal, Graffeo was expected to be a moderate conservative voice on that important bench. Labels aside, she gets credit for getting the point.