Reporter’s Privilege Has Room for TechnoBuffalo

     CHICAGO (CN) – publishes news – not mere “hype” – and need not identify the source behind leaked photos of a forthcoming Motorola smartphone, a judge ruled.
     TechnoBuffalo, a tech website with more than 1 million readers per month, published pictures of the Motorola Droid Bionic smartphone in August 2011, weeks before the phone’s release date. The post stated that “an anonymous tipster” provided the images.
     Believing that the images came from a manual that it printed for Motorola, the Johns-Byrne Co. demanded in a complaint that TechnoBuffalo identify its “tipster.” Johns-Byrne claimed that the individual responsible for the leak stole confidential trade secrets and damaged the company’s business relationship with Motorola.
     Though TechnoBuffalo argued that reporter’s privilege shields it from having to disclose the identity of its confidential source, Johns-Byrne claimed that the website does not qualify as journalism. It said that TechnoBuffalo merely disseminates passively acquired “hype,” rather than actively report.
     Cook County Judge Michael Panter initially ordered the website to provide the information, but he ruled on reconsideration that TechnoBuffalo qualifies as a “news medium” and cannot be forced to reveal the leaker’s identity.
     “Encouraging and enabling people to violate relationships of trust with their employers and to steal proprietary information may be odious,” Panter wrote. “It may weaken the very industry that TechnoBuffalo depends upon. It may itself be actionable under the statutes and authorities JBC cites. However, as of this writing, it cannot be excluded from the extremely broad protection of the journalistic privilege.”
     The July ruling describes TechnoBuffalo’s website as “disconcerting,” noting that it “solicits employees of tech companies to be ‘super secret ninjas’ to … hand over ‘inside information’ to TechnoBuffalo who then disseminates it for their own purposes and who will ‘take your name to the grave.'”
     Panzer continued: “Unlike other famous secrets whose sources were protected in order to inform citizens of government corruption and public misconduct, the sole purpose of the TechnoBuffalo solicitation is to promote TechnoBuffalo, without a second thought as to what harm it may cause lawful and productive companies whose stolen information it leaks.”
     Nevertheless, Johns-Byrne’s “attempt to distinguish ‘hype’ from actual news is unavailing,” Panter wrote.
     “Not only is newsworthiness of content omitted from the Act itself, but other courts have recognized the difficulty in crafting a workable test to distinguish legitimate form illegitimate news,” he added.
     “This court is not to consider whether TechnoBuffalo ‘operates according to the same journalistic standards as ‘traditional’ media” or whether their methods are ethical or even lawful. This court is simply to determine whether they fit the definitions of the act. For these reasons, this court finds that TechnoBuffalo’s conduct, and that of its editors and writers, meets the statutory definition of ‘reporter.'”
     Panter scheduled a case-management conference for Aug. 13.

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