Nov. 9, 2017  

SPJ Florida signs amicus brief in support of journalistic privilege

SPJ Florida joined journalism organizations in support of a journalists’ right to privilege in the case of journalists being forced to reveal their unpublished work product.

The University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information submitted the amicus brief, which was signed by SPJ Florida, the Florida Press Association, the First Amendment Foundation, and the Florida Society of News Editors.

The amicus brief can be read here.

The case involves a Norweigan Cruise Lines executive, Kevin Sheehan, whose profile was published in Travel Weekly in December 2014. However, the story was taken down days later when the publication received an email from the executive’s successor, Colin Veitch. The original executive, Sheehan, claimed that the email was libelous and demanded that the email be made public.

As non-party witnesses, Travel Weekly said they were protected under journalistic privilege. When the case went to the 11th Circuit Court in Miami, as the cruise line is based there, the judge decided that journalists are only protected from privilege while actively gathering news, and since the story was already completed and the email came afterwards, the journalists had no choice to but to be witnesses in the case.

The circuit court order can be read here.

“This case is disturbing, as journalists are always working on stories and receiving tips — even before we realize a story is forming,” said SPJ Florida President Christiana Lilly. “We are constantly in communication with sources and news gathering, and to have to prove that we are ‘actively’ working on a story is ridiculous.”

Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center and the former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, reached out to SPJ Florida and other groups to sign the amicus brief to show support for the journalists forced into the case.

“The reporter’s privilege is meant to provide broad protection for the gathering of news, and it’s dangerous for courts to get into the business of nitpicking over exactly when the ‘active newsgathering’ process begins and ends,” LoMonte explained.

“It was important for the judges to hear the authoritative voice of organizations that represent journalists and are most familiar with how newsrooms work on an everyday basis. SPJ and its members know that sometimes the best news stories start with unsolicited tips from people who’ve read or watched a story and get in touch to offer followup information. Every journalist regards being accessible to receive tips from sources as part of the newsgathering process, and we need for courts to recognize that tipster relationship as worthy of protecting with the privilege.”

SPJ Florida will be tracking the case as it progresses.

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