Reporters Can’t Shield Sources of Info on Judge

     ERIE, Pa. (CN) – Three reporters who allegedly defamed a magisterial district judge cannot claim journalist’s privilege to shield the source of the information they printed, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
     The decision by the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed a trial court ruling in favor of Erie County Judge Dominick DiPaolo, who sought to compel the Erie Times News writers to produce any information about him that they used in their coverage of a legal investigation into Unicredit, a local debt collection company.
     DiPaolo argued he needed the information to prove the publication had libeled him in numerous writings on the Unicredit case, according to court documents.
     After filing suit, DiPaolo served Times News staffers Lisa Thompson, Edward Palatella and Michael Maciag with interrogatories requiring that they reveal their sources.
     The writers claimed they were immune from such a request by virtue of journalistic privilege and by Pennsylvania Shield Law, which protects information used by the news media from being disclosed in legal investigations.
     A trial court disagreed, granting DiPaolo’s motion to compel the journalists to divulge the sources information the magistrate claimed was slanderous. The writers appealed, but a three-judge superior court upheld the decision.
     At the heart of the dispute between the judge and the journalists is a lawsuit filed against Unicredit by the Pennsylvania attorney general in 2010.
     The lawsuit claimed Unicredit violated state law by employing improper debt-collection practices. These alleged misdeeds included filing improper lawsuits against purported debtors in DePaolo’s court, most of which resulted in judgments in the company’s favor.
     DiPaolo sued the Erie Times News and its reporters claiming their “significant” coverage of the case maliciously called his reputation into question and made him appear to be complicit in the collection agency’s wrongdoings.
     One article cited in the lawsuit allegedly claimed that a ruling issued by a municipal court judge in connection with the case “found that Judge DiPaolo was involved in a kickback scheme with Unicredit” and suggested that he may have been on board with the debt collector’s “ghost system of justice.”
     “[T]he information surfacing in the case … could include a look at the practices in the office of Erie 6th Ward District Judge Dominick DiPaolo,” Palatella and Thompson allegedly wrote in a November 2010 article.
     DiPaolo said the libelous statements in the Times News continued as the Unicredit case wore on, with the same writers printing in 2011 that he improperly “extended judicial favors” to Unicredit execs because the company employed a member of his family.
     He claims he was also falsely accused of intentionally concealing the fact that the debt collector was filing cases in his court that were actually out of its jurisdiction.
     DiPaolo contends that reporters “intentionally misquoted or mischaracterized the proceedings and public records upon which they based [their] statements.”
     Their willful failure to print the truth means they committed libel, he claims, but he needs their source information in order to prove his case.
     “Those notes, drafts and documents are likely to provide insight into the state of knowledge of the reporters prior to their writing the articles and [their] mindset … [while] writing the articles,” DiPaolo wrote in a motion quoted in the Superior Court ruling.
     DiPaolo said he also needs the journalists to reveal their sources to prove that their statements about him were written with “reckless disregard as to [their] truth or falsity.”
     The Superior Court agreed. In a ruling written by Judge Ford Elliott, it held that DiPaolo cannot demonstrate actual malice without showing the court that the reporters purposely threw accuracy to the wind in their written statements about him.
     The specific information to which the reporters were privy is crucial for proving this point, the ruling says.
     The decision similarly struck down the writers’ journalistic privilege argument.
     Revealing their sources for the offending articles would not require them to breach any confidentiality, and therefore would not compromise their ability to get information from the same sources in the future, the panel said.
     “Prohibiting disclosure of the information sought by Judge DiPaolo would not further the goal of reporter’s privilege, which is to insure the free flow of information to reporters,” Judge Elliott wrote.
     He noted that the Pennsylvania Shield Law leaves the reporters without a leg on which to stand for similar reasons — because there is no confidential source to be protected, there is no privacy to be shielded, the ruling said.
     The court also noted that because Judge DiPaolo’s motion involves privileged material, it is a rare exception to the rule that discovery orders normally cannot be appealed.
     Representatives of the parties did not immediately respond to telephone calls from the Courthouse News requesting comment.

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