Court rules reporter can be compelled to testify in suit

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(Host) The Vermont Supreme Court ruled today that a newspaper reporter in Orange County can be compelled to testify in a job discrimination suit.

The court says it doesn’t believe the decision is an infringement of press freedoms.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) In 2001, the Topsham Selectboard met to hire a new road foreman.

The meeting was covered by the Journal Opinion weekly newspaper in Bradford.

In the published story, the reporter quoted two board members as saying they chose the winning candidate for the job, in part, because he was young.

The story prompted one of the other job applicants to file a lawsuit against the town contending that the Selectboard had discriminated against him based on his age.

When lawyers for the man subpoenaed the reporter to testify about what the selectman had said, the newspaper went to court. The paper argued that the reporter couldn’t be compelled to testify if the same information was available from another source – namely the other people who had heard the selectmen’s comments. The lower court agreed. It said forcing the reporter to testify could have a chilling effect on the way journalists cover meetings.

In overturning that decision, the Vermont Supreme Court said that because of the vagaries of memory, the reporter and the other witnesses are not in any meaningful sense alternative sources of the same information, but sources of different information.

Furthermore, the court said the information sought from the reporter wasn’t confidential or unpublished: it had already appeared in the newspaper.

The lawyer for the plaintiff in the case applauded the decision. Edwin Hobson says the reporter’s testimony is essential because he’s a disinterested witness to the alleged comments: The remaining witnesses, including the town clerk, were primarily relatives of his client. Hobson says the decision won’t set a precedent.

(Hobson) "There’s not going to be a flood of subpoenas about public hearings as a result of this decision. We’re simply asking for one more person’s recollection of what happened at an open public hearing."

(Zind) Mike Donoghue is Executive Director of the Vermont Press Association. Donoghue says this ruling is part of a trend. Two years ago, the Vermont Supreme Court compelled WCAX television to turn over videotape of a post-world series student melee on the University of Vermont Campus. Donoghue says the two rulings send a clear message.

(Donoghue) "The bottom line is that reporters because of this case and the WCAX case will often find themselves now in the future sitting in courtrooms waiting to testify. Reporters shouldn’t really be put in that position, especially if there was 5, 50 or 500 people that also heard or saw what was said."

(Zind) Donoghue says the ruling will have a chilling effect on the press by putting reporters in a position of appearing to take sides in disputes.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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