Feb 4, 2013

New Jersey Blogger Invokes Shield Law

A New Jersey blogger is the latest to fight a subpeona for information based on the claim that she is not covered by the state's shield law.

In December, Tina Renna wrote on her blog that "as many as 16 names" of county employees who had used county-owned generators for personal use in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy had "been revealed to [her] by different sources." In the post Renna also reported that while Union County, New Jersey prosecutor Theodore Romankow was conducting an investigation of the allegations, "I am told that the investigator is opening his interviews by telling the potential witnesses 'There is nothing criminal here, we are only looking into this because Tina Renna put it on her blog.'"

In response, an investigator from Romankow's office called Renna. After she did not respond, Romankow subpeonaed her for the names. Renna says that revealing the names would also reveal her sources.

New Jersey's journalists' shield law, N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-21, protects any "person engaged on, engaged in, connected with, or employed by news media for the purpose of gathering, procuring, transmitting, compiling, editing or disseminating news for the general public or on whose behalf news is so gathered, procured, transmitted, compiled, edited or disseminated." "News media" is defined as including "newspapers, magazines, press associations, news agencies, wire services, radio, television or other similar printed, photographic, mechanical or electronic means of disseminating news to the general public." N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-21a .

This broad language would seem to cover blogs such as Renna's. But the prosecutor is arguing in court papers that Renna is not protected by the shield statute. "In reality she is a political partisan activist, and perhaps a public advocate," the prosecutor's brief argues, "but she falls far short of anything approaching 'news media.'"

Most shield laws were written with traditional media in mind, and some courts have struggled with application of these laws to blogs and other social media. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering an appeal of a ruling holding that a blogger was not protected by Oregon's shield law (although, as I've noted, that was because of her behavior, no the medium she used). Courts in California and New Hampshire have held that bloggers are covered by those state's reporters' privileges.

As should the court in New Jersey. Renna and her site serve as a "watchdog" of local government, a valuable function which is one of the reasons why the First Amendment was written. Her blog may be partisan, but that does not mean that it is not a legitimate source of news that is protected by New Jersey's shield law.