As federal shield legislation works its way slowly through the government, conflicts between journalists seeking to protect anonymous sources and courts that seek such information continue to emerge.
StinkyJournalism mentioned the case of Claire O’Brien–a journalist fighting not to reveal anonymous sources to a Kansas court–in an earlier post last December. Now, as of February 10, O’Brien has been found in contempt of court after she did not appear at a Wednesday morning trial, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal. They write the Dodge City Daily Globe reporter will be fined $1,000 every day she fails to appear in court.
O’Brien, as we reported in December, was originally subpoenaed for her notes from a story she wrote on murder suspect Samuel Bonilla, and ordered to testify in an “Inquisition,” a closed, information-gathering trial like a grand jury. According to the Daily Globe, O’Brien and the newspaper fought the ruling, but eventually lost last week in the Kansas Supreme Court, which upheld the order for O’Brien to testify at the inquisition.
Kansas has no state shield law for journalists, and O’Brien’s defense was unable to persuade the court that her rights as a member of the press protected her from being forced to testify or turn over information.
Bonilla was charged with second-degree murder for the death of a man named Steven Holt in a shooting on Labor Day in 2009, O’Brien wrote in her story.
Her article said Bonilla’s bail bondsman, Rebecca Escalante, believed Bonilla had acted in self defense, and said Bonilla had not been bonded out of jail because his life was in danger. O’Brien also cited an anonymous source who reported another man wounded in the fight had weapons and “a base of support that is well-known for its anti-Hispanic beliefs.”
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The Capital-Journal reports legal counsel for the Daily Globe representing O’Brien had advised her to appear in court and attended court on Wednesday even though O’Brien did not. According the newspaper, O’Brien has said the legal group, GateHouse, also hindered her from seeking outside counsel. They write,
O’Brien said Wednesday she has been told by attorneys for GateHouse Media, which owns the Globe, the company wouldn’t pay for her legal representation unless she answered the prosecutor’s questions under oath. She also said GateHouse has disrupted her attempts to seek outside help from a national journalism group.
According to the Globe, Ford County District Judge Daniel Love has rescheduled the hearing for 2 p.m. Friday “to allow O’Brien time to hire a lawyer to represent her interests exclusively.”
In a January BusinessWeek article, John Hanna wrote that Kansas legislators had said O’Brien’s case “could boost efforts to enact a state shield law for journalists.” According to the BusinessWeek story, the proposed Kansas shield law would require a party in a court case to provide evidence the information they seek from a reporter “can’t be obtained by other means.” O’Brien argued in an email to StinkyJournalism earlier this month that all the information the state is seeking from her is available from other sources.
StinkyJournalism has contacted O’Brien to ask for her comment on the development of her case and the larger issues of anonymous sourcing and the law. We will update with any information.