Fighting For a Free Press

COMMENTARY The Constitution

Fighting For a Free Press

Apr 19, 2004 2 min read

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

Wally Wakefield dodged bullets for a year fighting in the Korean War, so he's not easily intimidated. Yet the 73-year-old retired schoolteacher and part-time weekly newspaper sports reporter worries about what might happen to him next on an unexpected battlefield: Ramsey County District Court Judge Dale Lindman's courtroom in Minnesota.

Wakefield is fighting for a fundamental principle underlying his and your First Amendment right to a free and independent press: the protection of confidential sources. He politely declined two years ago when Judge Lindman ordered him to reveal his sources for a 1997 story or face a contempt citation and a $200-a-day fine. The order came during preliminary motions of a defamation suit that doesn't name the part-time journalist as a defendant. He wasn't even the main reporter on the offending story.

The contempt fines could total $20,000 or more if Wakefield persists in his refusal until July 19, when the suit is heard in court. That's $20,000 Wakefield can't afford on his modest pension and the occasional paychecks he gets from the Maplewood Review, a weekly newspaper for which he covers local sports.

Wakefield's plight began when he contributed some anonymous quotes to a story another reporter wrote on Tartan High School officials' decision not to renew football coach Richard Weinberger's contract. Weinberger sued the suburban St. Paul school system and four of its employees as individuals, arguing that they used the Maplewood Review to defame him.

A Minnesota Appeals Court later reversed Lindman's order against Wakefield, ruling he was protected by Minnesota's Free Flow of Information Act. The Act shields journalists from revealing confidential sources, except in some cases, including defamation suits in which reporters are defendants. Weinberger appealed and Minnesota's Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Wakefield was not protected by the shield law. The clock on Judge Lindman's contempt order against Wakefield started ticking April 12.

But Wakefield is not a defendant and that's why his plight has gained national attention among journalists and others who cherish the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press. The issue is simple: If journalists can't protect confidential sources, they won't have any. We the People will lose because the media's ability to hold government officials accountable will be crippled.

The Reporter's Committee for a Free Press in Washington, D.C., has appealed for donations to help Wakefield, and a fund has been established at the Star Tribune Credit Union. The Society of Professional Journalists also is helping Wakefield.

"The support throughout the country has been just unbelievable," Wakefield told The Minnesota Star-Tribune April 12. "It's helped me understand that this fight isn't just about me, it's about the profession."

This is not the first time a Minnesota courtroom has spawned a legal case with serious First Amendment ramifications. The state's Public Nuisance Bill of 1925 allowed Minnesota judges to suppress without a jury trial any publication judged to be "malicious, scandalous and defamatory." In effect, the law handed nervous public officials trying to evade public accountability a handy tool to prevent it - prior restraint of critical media.

This gag law was successfully challenged by the American Newspaper Publishers Association, led by Col. Robert McCormick, the irascible force behind the self-proclaimed world's greatest newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. McCormick feared the gag law "would put every newspaper at the mercy of any corruptible judge and I carried the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court," according to his biographer, Richard N. Smith. On the last day of its 1931 term, the Court struck down the Minnesota law.

Wakefield's case shouldn't have to go all the way to the nation's highest tribunal. He's not a named defendant in Weinberger's defamation suit, so the graying sports reporter must be protected by the Minnesota shield law. Judge Lindman's contempt citation and the $200-a-day fine is simply an attempt to use a judicial hammer to nail Wakefield's confidential sourcesĀ - and with it a big chunk of the First Amendment's guarantee of a free and independent press.

In the meantime, the contempt fine total mounts. Some morning in the not-so-distant future, Wakefield could awaken to find a judgment against his property to pay the bill.

He deserves better. So do all who cherish a free press.

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