Plainfield bloggers and bloggers elsewhere in New Jersey who try to bring news of their local communities can take heart from the ruling of Union County Judge Karen Cassidy this past Friday quashing a grand jury subpoena issued to CountyWatchers blogger Tina Renna.
Renna has been a thorn in the side of Union County's Democratic establishment for years. Her coverage of Freeholder Board meetings and Union County business has been prodigious. She is a master at using OPRA requests for public documents to shine light on County practices, winning many lawsuits over the release of materials.
The case in point involved Renna's coverage of the alleged personal use of County-owned generators after Superstorm Sandy by a number of Union County employees and the failure of the Prosecutor's office to bring charges against any of them.
Union County Prosecutor Ted Romankow wanted Renna's list of the employees who allegedly used the generators. Renna refused, contending that divulging the names might lead to discovery and punishment of her source(s).
[Full disclosure, Plainfield Today had its own brush with the Prosecutor's office back in 2006 over the question of sources, when I reported on supposed death threats against Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs being used to justify the assignment of two police officers as bodyguards to her full-time (see here); and Robinson-Briggs' respond by sicing the media on me (see here). Ultimately I was interviewed by investigators from Prosecutor Romankow's office, to whom I held that the story was based on gossip (as stated in the story itself). In 2008, I was justified in a backhanded way when Director Hellwig admitted to the media that there had never been an independent threat assessment and that the assignment of bodyguards had been made on an unsubstantiated basis (see here).]
Romankow presented the matter to the grand jury, which issued a subpoena compelling Renna to divulge the information. Renna then filed a motion to quash (or dismiss) the subpoena, which is the subject of Judge Cassidy's ruling. You can read the Ledger's news coverage here and editorial here; CountyWatcher's coverage here; and the Courier's story here. Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine even fired off a round in today's piece (see here).
It is instructive to read Judge Cassidy's well-reasoned and thorough opinion (see here, PDF). The Prosecutor's presentation seems focused on ancillary matters such as Renna's occasional lapses of syntax and grammar and sometimes hyperbolic descriptions of those on whom she is reporting.
Cassidy is intent on explicating the conditions under which a person can be shielded from forced disclosure of their sources, as set forth under New Jersey law and in case law on the matter.
On the question of whether the CountWatchers blog is similar to traditional news media, Cassidy, after examination which includes frequency of publication and types of stories, finds that it is.
On the question of whether it meets the necessary purpose to gather and disseminate 'news', Cassidy again finds that CountyWatchers does. She notes that it need not be the sole or primary purpose, but may be an 'alternate' purpose. Cassidy also points out that no need has been asserted by New Jersey courts for the reportage to be 'unbiased'.
On the question of whether CountyWatchers' materials are gathered in the course of professional newgathering activities, Cassidy cites talking with sources, attendance at meetings and use of OPRA requests as some of the methods used by traditional media and also by CountyWatchers.
Accordingly, Cassidy ordered that the Grand Jury subpoena be quashed.
The prosecutor may appeal the ruling, but as one of the commenters (Trochilus) on the CountyWatchers story on the ruling points out (see here), Romankow's assertion to the Ledger after the ruling that Renna had lied, puts him in a real bind if he tries to appeal, as he would have had to assert to the Grand Jury that Renna had knowledge of criminal activity by County workers.
- Plainfield Today --
- 7/7/2006: "Death threats on Mayor?"
- 7/12/2006: "PT on griddle over 'death threats' post?"
- 10/15/2008: "Once more with the Robinson-Briggs bodyguards. Oy."
- Ledger: "Judge rules blogger protected by 'shield law'"
- CountyWatchers: "Renna is a journalist; Prosecutor's vendetta fails"
- Courier: "Union County blogger wins battle with Prosecutor over subpoena"
- Ledger Editorial: "Judge right to back Union County blogger"
- Paul Mulshine: "Union County machine in need of repair"
- Judge Cassidy's Opinion: "In re Union County Grand Jury Subpoena of 1/11/13"