Minnesota passes shield law
Newspaper subpoena case helps with push
MINNESOTA — More than two years ago a tearful Michelle Ames, then-editor of the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, stood in front of Hennepin County District Judge John Stanoch and said she would not comply with a court order to turn over unpublished negatives taken of a fight on campus.
“On behalf of the staff of the Minnesota Daily … we have to respectfully decline to comply with the order,” Ames told the judge.
Though the judge found Ames in contempt of court for defying his request to hand over the film and issued a fine, it was a silent victory for the newspaper. Ames and other past editors successfully fought to keep the film out of the hands of the court for more than two years, despite not being protected by a reporter’s privilege or the state’s shield law.
In October 1993, a photographer from the Minnesota Daily took photographs of a fight during a rally on campus. Soon after, the unpublished negatives were subpoenaed, touching off a long battle to keep the photos private. The Minnesota Daily staff believed that as an ethical matter, they could not serve as an investigative arm for law enforcement officials.
Now, with the passage of a new journalist’s shield law in Minnesota, a situation like Ames’ should never happen again in the land of 10,000 lakes.
Mark Anfinson, a media attorney who spearheaded the effort to pass the law, said dozens of media organizations worked together in a grassroots fashion to lobby the bill through the Minnesota legislature and later to the governor with almost unanimous support.
“It was like D-Day,” Anfinson analogized. “We mobilized to a great extent and then we attacked. We blew it through.”
Although the Minnesota Daily case exploded during a time when the effort was already being made to pass the law, Anfinson said the case brought a lot of useful attention to the need for a revised shield law in the state.
“The Daily case is a classic example of what they call consciousness raising,” he said. “It did a good job of convincing that there was a principle at stake. It certainly did help us.”
On April 7, Gov. Arne Carlson allowed the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act to become law, extinguishing unclear language in the old law that made it possible for some unpublished or unbroadcast items to be subpoenaed.
The old shield law stated all material was protected from compelled disclosure “if” disclosure of the information would identify a confidential source. The new law replaces “if” with “whether or not,” offering substantial protection for journalists. Former adviser of the Minnesota Daily, Bill Hinsinger, said the new shield law will counter a recent trend in the state that saw an increase in prosecutors and law enforcers trying to subpoena material from the media.
“We’re thrilled it passed,” Hinsinger said.
Fall 1998, Minnesota, reporter's privilege, reports