The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, February 06, 2004

High school journo scoop: Pulitzer or Jimmy's World?

It' s a TV movie either way.

The Springfield Republican (Feburary 4) has the story:
The headline of the Longmeadow High School newspaper appears to say it all: "High class parenting: mother does drugs with daughter."

...The article, written by sophomore Ashley Shaw, appeared in the January edition of the Jet Jotter. The newspaper, distributed the week of Jan. 26, features the story of a 35-year-old mother and teen-age daughter who reportedly share a daily marijuana smoking habit and have experimented with other drugs.

(Unfortunately - as with most of these high school rags, there is no online edition. Which strikes me as mad, given the popularity of the whole Friends United thing.)

The Republican piece seems to suggest that Shaw will be protected under Massachusetts law from having to reveal her source. I don't get the feeling that there are tons of Kyle's Moms ranting for the girl's head right now. Evidently no racial or religious element to have the grievance-meisters parachuting in.

As the piece says, in a school (around 1,000 students) like Longmeadow High, folks are going to be able to finger the daughter in no time flat. If she exists. Will the Republican keep us informed?

(Longmeadow is a town of 15,000 souls south of Springfield close to the Connecticut line.)


Now I start to worry whether the source protection point is right. The Republican piece says
More than 30 states have so-called "shield laws" that protect journalists from having to reveal their sources. Massachusetts is not one of them, but the state courts have historically recognized the implied First Amendment privilege protecting journalists' sources.

Whereas the Student Press Law Center site says
Student journalists may be protected from disclosing confidential and non-confidential sources and information in some circumstances. While Massachusetts has refused to adopt statutory protection for journalists or find one in their state constitution, Massachusetts courts have protected reporter's confidential sources under a First Amendment balancing test. In addition, the supreme judicial court recognized a qualified common-law privilege to protect confidential sources in a civil lawsuit. Sinnott v. Boston Retirement Board, 524 N.E.2d 100 (Mass. 1988), cert. denied, 109 S.Ct. 528 (1988). In Sinnott, the court said that a judge may weigh the public interest in the free flow of information against the litigant's need for the information and the availability of information from other sources in deciding whether a reporter should be protected from disclosure of a source or information. The court did not indicate whether the privilege would apply to student journalists, but it did hold that the interests for and against disclosure would be balanced on a case-by-case basis.

I read that as, Massachusetts journalists withold sources at their own risk. No safe haven: palm tree justice every time.

It's not an area I'm familiar with, or want to research right now. I would be concerned whether, in making its case-by-case analysis in Shaw's case, the court might place reliance on the fact that she is not a professional journalist, and therefore neither has her profession at risk; nor did her informant have an expectation that his confidence would be respected.

It was - I find (God, I thought I wasn't going to research this!) - an issue in the case of University of Montana student Linda Tracy in relation to the Montana shield law. And the piece also mentions the case of Vanessa Leggett who actually spent six months in the hoosegow down in Texas for not spilling to the FBI - again, she was held to be unprotected by the First Amendment on the grounds that she was not a professional journalist. (Narrative with documentation.)

I can't immediately see that the (Federal ) Fifth Circuit produced any worthwhile paperwork on the Leggett case; and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.

But, given the lack of a shield law in the Bay State, Ashley Shaw will be relying on the First Amendment; and needing to hope that the courts up North were more sympathetic.

(There is a nice map of the various Circuits on this page of links to the various Federal courts.)

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