State Judge William Keesley on Wednesday declined to render an immediate ruling on whether to hold Columbia political blogger Will Folks in contempt of court.
Johnny Parker, lawyer for former State Representative Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, had asked Keesley to punish Folks for not disclosing the identities of several confidential sources in articles written by Folks in the spring of 2015 on his opinion website, Fits. New.
In the articles, these confidential sources predicted a criminal indictment of Bingham. No indictment has been filed. Bingham then sued Folks for libel and, as part of the pre-trial legal discovery, demanded to know who Folks’ sources are.
“The court should invoke a fine or jail time or a combination of the two to force it to comply,” said Parker, of Hampton, who is known statewide for the multi-million dollar verdicts that ‘he won for years for plaintiffs in civil cases.
During the hearing, Parker called Folks to the witness stand and toasted him for over 20 minutes.
“You claim you’re a journalist, don’t you?” Parker asked.
“I report and editorialize, yes sir,” Folks replied.
Parker: “As a journalist, do you realize the importance of being specific? “
People: “Yes, sir. “
When asked, Folks, 42, described his news site as “an online media publication,” told Parker his sources did not want their identities revealed and added: “I think I have to not to break my alliance with these sources “.
People said he would not divulge his sources, even though “I don’t want to go to jail and I miss my wife and children.” He also refused to admit that his writings on Bingham were wrong and indicated that Bingham could still be caught in misconduct.
“I think the investigation (a state grand jury investigation into public corruption) into these matters is ongoing,” Folks told Parker.
In the articles, based on confidential sources, Folks wrote that a source told him that Bingham, then chairman of the House Ethics Committee, had ignored allegations of legislative misconduct, and other sources had told him said “serious ethical allegations” had been made against Bingham. .
Bingham’s trial also alleges that a story falsely implied that he “engaged in conduct for which he could be criminally charged.”
The case embodies a conflict between the rights of First Amendment journalists to publish controversial articles against the right of plaintiffs to seek prosecution-related information upon discovery, a pre-trial process in which plaintiffs have the right to require the production of undisclosed evidence.
Under US Supreme Court rulings, journalists can be held liable for unknowingly publishing false information about public figures such as Bingham, but only if reporters have no legitimate reason to do so. do and act with what is called “a reckless disregard for the truth.” “Proving ‘a reckless disregard for the truth’ is a high standard for encouraging healthy and robust debate on public issues, the courts have said.
Another wrinkle in the matter is that Folks is no ordinary journalist. His topical articles are a mix of scoops about money and speculation from anonymous sources – sometimes right, sometimes half-right and sometimes not – which may lack dimensions of context and representation of other sides of a story that traditional journalists usually provide. . Its website, fitsnews.com, boasts of its motto “Unjust, unbalanced”.
At the booth, Folks told Parker his website was “a hybrid that delivers news in some cases and editorial commentary in others, and sometimes mixes it up.”
Representative Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, was also in court on Wednesday, a lawyer who said he represented one of Folks’ confidential sources. This person doesn’t want their identity revealed, Bannister said. Bannister’s statements were the first time that a third party publicly confirmed the existence of an actual confidential source.
People have testified that if he breached confidentiality he would break his contract with his sources and irreparably damage his reputation as a journalist who makes a living by collecting and disseminating information.
Folks were represented by former US Attorney Pete Strom and Senator Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
At the end of the hearing, Keesley told lawyers for both sides that they had to submit proposed orders for him to review by July 7.