Contempt order against reporter reversed

NMU OHIO Confidentiality/Privilege Dec 15, 2000

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Contempt order against reporter reversed

An Akron newspaper reporter can maintain the confidentiality of a source he used in an article about improper government payments.

An Ohio appellate court reversed a contempt citation issued against a reporter who refused to divulge when he received confidential information. Judge Cheryl Waite of the Ohio Court of Appeals (7th Dist.) in Youngstown, writing for a three-judge panel, allowed Akron Beacon-Journal reporter Jon Craig to keep his source confidential because prosecutors did not demonstrate a strong enough need for the person’s identity.

On Nov. 1, 1998 Craig used confidential documents to write an article about improper Medicaid payments at the Belmont County Department of Human Services. Craig’s sources included county health officials who disclosed improper payments. Four months later, a special prosecutor subpoenaed Craig to answer grand jury questions about the documents. When Craig refused, the trial court held him in contempt and ordered him held in jail until he answered. The judge suspended the jail order during the appeal.

Craig argued that disclosing when he received the documents would signal the identity of his confidential source. He claimed protection under the Ohio reporter’s privilege, which permits reporters to not disclose confidential sources.

The appeals court treated the question of whether a reporter has to disclose when he received the information as one of first impression.

In allowing the reporter to keep the source confidential, Waite wrote that prosecutors failed to show the relevancy of the information. “Unless the government can satisfy the threshold showing, it will be unable to prove that the question as to the date on which the information was received by [Craig] was not made solely for the purpose of harassment,” the Dec. 12 decision read.

The court noted that the prosecutor subpoenaed Craig specifically to uncover the source of the leak of public assistance information. Under state law, disclosing confidential welfare information, such as a recipient of Medicaid payments, is a first degree misdemeanor resulting in a sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The prosecutor argued that the date was needed to ensure material received did not violate the crime’s statute of limitations, but the court pointed out that Craig had only worked at the newspaper for 18 months, and therefore must have received the information within the statute of limitation time period.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Joseph Vukovich suggested in stronger language than Waite that the Ohio statutory privilege “includes the unqualified privilege to refrain from disclosing a source, or any information that might reasonably lead to the disclosure of a source, in any investigation or proceeding.”

(In Re: Grand Jury Proceedings; Media Counsel: Ronald Kopp, Amie Bruggeman, Roetzel & Andress, Akron)DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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