A county judge has ordered a reporter to reveal the identity of a source used in a story about a grand jury investigation of alleged wrongdoing at a prison.
The story, which appeared in The Scranton Times and its sister paper, The Tribune, in January 2004, said that former Lackawanna County commissioners Joseph Corcoran and Randy A. Castellani were “considerably less than cooperative” in their appearances before the grand jury. The two men have sued the newspapers and former reporter Jennifer Henn for defamation.
The importance of grand jury secrecy outweighs the protections of the Pennsylvania Shield Law, which gives reporters the right to guard the identity of their sources, county Common Pleas Judge Robert A. Mazzoni wrote in a ruling issued June 3.
“The court recognizes and accepts the purpose of the Shield Law,” the judge wrote. “When this purpose, however, clashes with the need to enforce and protect the foundation of the grand jury purpose, the Shield Law should relinquish its priority.”
Grand jury proceedings are secret and state law bars prosecutors, court officials or jurors from discussing a grand jury investigation, but witnesses are not barred from discussing their testimony outside the courtroom. Mazzoni said that it appeared the source for the story on the Lackawanna County Prison came from within the grand jury proceedings.
The newspapers argue that the shield law gives unqualified protection to reporters. The former county commissioners say they have a right to know who provided information to the newspapers that they allege is false.
Teri Henning, a media lawyer with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association, called the decision unprecedented in Pennsylvania. The newspapers are appealing to the state Superior Court.
Mazzoni did not set a date for Henn to reveal her source.
The grand jury had been investigating charges that prison administrators used inmate labor to remodel their homes, repair their cars and perform personal chores.
The right of reporters to protect their confidential sources has come under fire recently.
Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller face up to 18 months in jail for refusing to testify in a grand jury probe of who divulged the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Disclosure of an undercover intelligence officer’s identity can be a federal crime.
In a separate case, The Associated Press and other news organizations are appealing a federal judge’s decision finding five reporters in contempt for refusing to identify their sources for stories about nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.
And last year, Rhode Island TV reporter Jim Taricani was sentenced to home confinement after he refused a court order to reveal the confidential source of an undercover FBI videotape of an alleged bribe. He served four months.