NJ Supreme Court: Journalists' Shield Law Doesn't Apply to Message Boards

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A very interesting ruling came out of the Supreme Court in New Jersey, seemingly drawing a line between "journalistic" channels and other information channels. Where that line is exactly, is not entirely clear. It's even more interesting when you consider that social media has played such an enormous role in news in the last several years (a trend that only seems to be growing).

The basic story goes like this: a woman, Shellee Hale, posted comments on an online discussion board accusing software company Too Much Media of engaging in fraudulent practices and of threatening the life of a person who spilled the beans. Hale says she was putting together info for an investigation, and was maintained that she was protected by a shield law, which would prevent her from having to give up her sources.

Not so much, according to the court. Reuters reports:

"(We) do not believe that the legislature intended to provide an absolute privilege in defamation cases to people who post comments on message boards," the court wrote. Otherwise anyone with a Facebook account could claim the journalist privilege, it said. Instead, the court concluded that online message boards are little more than unscreened reader comment pages or public forums for discussion.

The court "has taken a sharp turn against the nontraditional journalist and people writing on the web," said Hale's lawyer, Jeffrey Pollock. He said the decision relegates anyone writing for alternative media to a second class of protection. New Jersey can no longer pride itself on having the broadest shield law in the nation, he said.

"To ensure that the privilege does not apply to every self-appointed newsperson, the Legislature requires that other means of disseminating news be 'similar' to traditional news sources to qualify for the law's coverage," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner is quoted as saying.

Another interesting point of note is that Hale is reportedly both a blogger and a licensed private investigator, while the discussion site she posted on has been described as the "Wall Street Journal of the adult entertainment industry".

What exactly does it take to be considered "similar" to a traditional news source, particularly in this era where print publications struggle to stay relevant as more people turn to a more diverse selection of news channels online, which include: traditional news sites, blogs, aggregators, social networks, and sites that offer various combinations of these elements? I'm guessing tweets and Facebook status updates don't qualify as "similar," which would be ironic considering how much emphasis traditional news sources place on such channels. Watch CNN or ESPN television broadcasts on any given day, and you'll likely see tweets being reported. Sometimes they're integral to the story, and sometimes they're simply random opinion filler.

As far as blogs, some publications start off as blogs and get bought up by major media companies. Is that what it takes to be considered "similar"? If so, where is the line between that and some average joe deciding to start a WordPress blog and reporting on some topic of interest? Are the protections of these two publications different?

In short, this re-opens the same old can of worms that comes up in the media industry time and time again, only with a blatant legal ruling from as high up as the Supreme Court. How this will be enforced on a consistent basis remains to be seen.

According to the Reuters report, "The New Jersey Supreme Court's opinion affirmed the rulings of both the trial and appellate courts. However, unlike the appeals court, the high court said that the shield law does not require newspersons to identify themselves as reporters, carry certain credentials or follow professional standards like taking notes, fact-checking or disclosing conflicts of interest."

Another point worth considering is whether or not the law applies to a traditional media journalist reporting on a message board, or say, Twitter. If Anderson Cooper posted the message in question on the same site, are we having this conversation? If he tweeted it?

Do you agree with the court's ruling?

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.

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