Will a South Carolina political blogger go to jail to protect his sources?

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“I’m not going to report a source.” That’s what political blogger Will Folks, who runs FITSnews.com in South Carolina, told CJR this week on the eve of his last testimony in a defamation lawsuit brought by a former state lawmaker.

It was a bold statement, especially because a state judge ordered Folks in October to reveal, if asked to do so in a deposition, the identity of anonymous sources he cited in articles. blog post about former lawmaker Kenny Bingham suing him. for defamation.

People defied the judge’s order and refused to spit out the names during testimony today.

What shall we do now?

“We will act to hold him in contempt and the court will take whatever action it deems appropriate,” Bingham’s lawyer John E. Parker said in an interview. When asked if this could mean potential jail time for Folks, Parker said yes.

The former lawmaker is suing Folks after several posts were posted online on FITSnews.com indicating that Bingham was the subject of an ethics complaint and, in one story, claiming how Statehouse “insiders” once believed that ‘an indictment against Binghman “would be released”. The ex-lawmaker wants to know the identity of anonymous sources in several posts, although there was one recorded source. In Bingham’s complaint, he said the allegation was false. He was not charged.

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People argue that his anonymous sources are unrelated to the trial. Bingham’s lawyer disagrees.

A lawyer for Folks, Tom Davis, who is currently a state senator, said Folks should not have to disclose these sources in a civil deposition because confidential sources are to journalists what trade secrets are to businesses. And, he argues, Folks has the First Amendment right to protect his sources. He also asked the state Supreme Court to weigh and resolve the issue, which would be unusual.

“One should not be able to uncover a journalist’s confidential sources by the mere expedient of filing a civil action and then making a ‘relevant’ discovery request,” Davis wrote in his application to the High Court.

Bingham declined to comment for this story, saying he would let Parker, his lawyer, speak on his behalf. Parker says the lower court has already ruled that Folks are required to answer questions and that the law does not protect him. He says he doubts the Supreme Court gets involved.

The latest drama in this case imposed a sense of unease on the South Carolina journalistic landscape, which didn’t exactly embrace Folks. Folks is the libertarian owner of an irreverent political blog that makes the news, regularly bloats local politicians, and sometimes slams journalists. It often relies on anonymous sources. Sometimes Folks calls himself a journalist, sometimes he pretends he isn’t.

“It doesn’t matter what my name is. What I do is the ultimate standard, ”he said in an email. “I’m announcing news and offering my perspective on it. … No matter what my name is, there is a voluminous body of literature attesting to the information-gathering function that I provide to the people of this state.

Adding to growing stakes is Folks’ attorney’s request to the state Supreme Court to intervene. The highest court in the state can choose whether or not to hear the case. It would be an unusual gesture.

That, coupled with the prospect of a blogger accused of contempt for not spitting out a source, put the state’s journalistic community in a sticky position: to weigh in or stay out?

Beyond the brief presentation texts when the lawsuit was first filed last year, the case did not receive much coverage in state media. Bill Rogers, director of the South Carolina Press Association, declined to comment on the case to CJR through group counsel Taylor Smith.

When asked this week if he would characterize the situation as a press freedom issue for Palmetto State, Smith said, “That’s an interesting question right now.”

South Carolina has a journalist’s shield law, but it does not apply when a journalist is sued in civil matters. However, Smith says he would like the Supreme Court to hear the case, despite his personal opinion that Folks is not a journalist.

“If Mr. Folks wins in this litigation, it could open the door to opportunities for journalists in the future to assert such a privilege under the First Amendment when they are sued for defamation and want to protect their sources. confidential. “, says Smith.

Mainstream journalists in the state, those who know about the case anyway, pay close attention to it.

“Like others, I’m interested to see where this is going,” said Meg Kinnard, an Associated Press reporter based in the state capital. “I know there is often a conversation about the role of bloggers in journalism. Should they be considered journalists? Should they have the same rights or privileges as other journalists? “

Doug Pardue, a watchdog and public service reporter for Charleston Post and Courier, said he wouldn’t say Folks is not a journalist.

“The question is, what kind of journalist he is,” Pardue said. “I would say he borders on being a gossip columnist, and he suffers from the same issues that gossip columnists suffer from, that is, he uses anonymous sources.”

Indeed, the blogger’s use of anonymous sources is now at the heart of this current legal battle. How it goes is of concern to Doug Fisher, who teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and was state editor for the AP from 1992-2001. a potentially bad precedent that could have a negative effect in the long run. affect journalists.

“The case scares me,” he told me in a telephone interview Wednesday as he assessed the potential results. The first is that the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case. Another is for the court to hear it and rule in favor of the blogger. Or the court hears it and rules against it. “It’s been one in three that you get a ruling that is in your favor. I don’t like those chances.

Image by: wp paarz, via Flickr

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Corey Hutchins is the correspondent for CJR based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former reporter for an alt-weekly in South Carolina, he was twice named Journalist of the Year in the Weekly Division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes on politics and the media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Inquiry at the Center for Public Integrity; he contributed to Slate, The nation, the Washington post, and others. Follow him on twitter @coreyhutchins or send him an e-mail at [email protected].



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