Reporter's Sources Protected in James Holmes Case, Court Rules
Good news for journalistic freedom: The New York Court of Appeals ruled today that Jana Winter, a Fox News reporter who covered the Aurora movie theater shooting last year, will be protected under New York's shield laws from having to disclose the names of confidential sources. The sources had told her about a notebook with violent depictions James Holmes sent to his psychiatrist. (Counter-intuitively, the New York Court of Appeals, rather than the New York State Supreme Court, is the state's highest court.) James Holmes admitted to the shooting, which left 12 people dead during a screening of the Dark Knight, but is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.
The case was controversial because though Winter was based in New York City, the shooting occurred in Colorado. New York's reporter shield laws are much stronger than in Colorado, where her sources were located, though it's unclear where Winter did her reporting. Holmes' attorneys wanted Winter to reveal her sources, or be brought to Colorado to face charges.
Their logic was simple: the two law enforcement agents who told Winter about the incriminating notebook had broken the gag order imposed on them by a judge. Since they couldn't be trusted to keep quiet about the evidence, how can they possibly be reliable witnesses? Who knows what else they could have lied about.
Fortunately, the seven-judge panel ruled (albeit narrowly) in favor of journalistic freedom.
"New York journalists should not have to consult the law in the jurisdiction where a source is located or where a story 'breaks' (assuming either is ascertainable) in order to determine whether they can issue a binding promise of confidentiality," wrote justice Victoria Graffeo in the majority opinion, which split the court four to three.
Writing for the dissent, justice Robert Smith said that, "The majority is holding, in substance, that a New York reporter takes the protection of New York's Shield Law with her when she travels — presumably, anywhere in the world."
Winter had previously suggested that, even if she were brought to Colorado and asked to reveal her sources, she would not do so. Refusing to reveal her sources might have meant a prison sentence for Winter.
"Confidential newsgathering is essential for investigative journalism to flourish, and the New York Court of Appeals has issued a broad decision protecting all New York-based journalists," said Winter's attorney, Dori Ann Hanswirth. "Today's victory is as much for Jana Winter as it is for all journalists and the public, which has a right to receive news from confidential sources."
Winter herself had just one message, sent via Tweet: