Judge: Authorities Can Subpoena Minnesota Reporters for Notes

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Authorities may issue subpoenas to three journalists at The Free Press for information one of its reporters gathered from an armed man who was in the middle of a standoff with police, a judge has ruled.

The newspaper, which argued that it could withhold the information, has 60 days to appeal the Tuesday ruling by Blue Earth County Judge Norb Smith. “We’re exploring our options,” said Jim Santori, publisher of The Free Press,

On Dec. 23, officers responded to a domestic disturbance at the home of Jeffrey Skjervold about a mile west of Amboy. During the hours-long standoff, Skjervold exchanged fire with officers before killing himself.

After Skjervold had wounded two officers, reporter Dan Nienaber began calling homes in the area in an attempt to learn more about what was happening. He reached Skjervold and interviewed him for a story he and two other reporters wrote for the next day’s edition.

Smith ruled Tuesday that in this case the interests of law enforcement trump the press’ right to protect its information.

“Freedom of the press is not quite as sacrosanct or absolute as the Free Press would like it to be,” Smith wrote. “That is especially true where the actions of a reporter interfere with the efforts of police negotiators to entice a distraught man out of his barricaded house while he is still alive.

“The right claimed by The Free Press to seek the truth must never be allowed to take precedent over the compelling and overriding interest of law enforcement authority to maintain human life.”

The newspaper reported that when Nienaber called Skjervold, The Free Press didn’t know the nature of the incident or even if it was still happening. Law enforcement officers were restricting access to the area, but weren’t saying why.

In court filings, county authorities said Nienaber’s interview upset Skjervold and they want to know if Skjervold said anything that didn’t appear in the article.

Smith ruled, “It is both just and right to compel the Free Press and its reporters to divulge all information regarding the conversation(s) they had with Skjervold. Only then can the unfortunate and traumatic events leading up to the death of Skjervold by his own hand be fully understood.”

Free Press attorney Mark Anfinson has pressed, unsuccessfully, for authorities to identify the focus of their investigation. He said it’s clear they’re not investigating Skjervold, which leaves the reporters or law enforcement officers.

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