• Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Newspaper Reporter Not Required To Disclose Source in Defamation Case, Even When Violation of Grand Jury Secrecy Is Alleged
  • March 25, 2009
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - King Of Prussia Office
  • In Castellani v. The Scranton Times, 956 A.2d 937 (Pa. 2008), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was faced with a situation which brought into conflict two long standing rules of law: the Shield Law and the Grand Jury Act.

    The Shield Law, 42 Pa.C.S.A. §5942, was originally enacted in 1937 and protects a newspaper reporter from revealing a source of information. The Shield Law is cemented in the Constitution's First Amendment Right of Freedom of Speech. The purpose of the Shield Law is to "protect the free flow of information to the news media in their role as information providers to the general public."

    On the other hand, grand jury proceedings are part of the criminal justice system and are conducted entirely in secret. Grand juries conduct investigations into potential crimes by receiving testimony of witnesses and evidence from the prosecutor. No defendant or his attorney or a judge is present during the grand jury proceeding. A grand jury may or may not decide to recommend criminal charges in each investigation. The Grand Jury Act, 42 Pa. C.S. § 4549, provides that persons sworn to secrecy during grand jury proceedings shall be held in contempt of court if they reveal any information which they are sworn to keep secret. Each participant in the grand jury proceeding: the prosecutor, the jurors, and the investigators, must take an oath not to reveal anything that occurs inside the grand jury room.

    In Castellani, a newspaper reporter for the local Scranton newspapers received information from a source regarding testimony of grand jury witnesses. The reporter penned front page stories revealing the grand jury testimony. The grand jury was investigating allegations of wrongdoing at the Lackawanna County Prison. Randall A. Castellani and Joseph J. Corcoran were the Lackawanna County Majority Democratic Commissioners. The Commissioners were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. After the two Commissioners testified, the Scranton Times and The Tribune published the front page stories alleging each of the Commissioners had stonewalled the grand jury and were less then "candid" or "cooperative" in the grand jury. The reporter attributed the information to "a source close to the investigation."

    Disturbed by the newspaper articles, the Commissioners presented the grand jury supervising judge a petition seeking sanctions against the individual(s) who disclosed the testimony, as violative of the Grand Jury Act. The supervising judge denied the Commissioners' petition for lack of standing but appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the source of the leaked information.

    The special prosecutor found no breach of secrecy from the prosecutor's office. In accepting the special prosecutor's findings, the supervising judge of the grand jury wrote, "The reports published in these newspapers are completely at variance with the transcript of the testimony of [the Commissioners]."

    The Commissioners brought suit against the Scranton Times, The Tribune, and the newspaper reporter for defamation. The Commissioners cited the supervising judge's opinion that the Commissioners' testimony did not match the report as well as the grand jury's presentment, which described the Commissioners as "cooperative." Further, the Commissioners claimed that the reporter's unnamed source engaged in "tortious, criminal, or contemptuous conduct" in relaying the information to the reporter. During their lawsuit, the Commissioners demanded the identity of the source. Standing behind the Shield Law, the newspapers and the reporter refused.

    After a hearing, the trial court ordered the reporter and the newspaper to disclose the identity of the source. The trial court found "when the Shield Law 'clashes with the need to enforce and protect the foundation of the grand jury purpose, the Shield Law should relinquish its priority.'" The win for the Commissioners was short. Upon appeal by the newspapers and reporter, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed, finding the reporter and the newspapers should "not be compelled to divulge the identity of their source."

    The Commissioners appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The question presented to the court was whether the Shield Law protects media defendants in a defamation case from the court-ordered disclosure of the confidential source of an allegedly defamatory newspaper article where the plaintiffs allege that the media defendants and the source were direct participants in the criminal disclosure of grand jury proceedings.

    The Commissioners argued that the Shield Law should not protect a criminal act. The Commissioners insisted that when the source relayed information from the grand jury proceedings, a criminal or contemptuous act took place. The Commissioners urged the Supreme Court to "devise a crime-fraud exception to the Shield Law." That is, if a crime is committed, the reporter should not be able to shield the source. The newspapers and reporter stood behind the Shield Law and its ironclad protection of media sources.

    The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found it unnecessary to address the clash of the long standing rules in this defamation case. The Court found "because this is a defamation action, where the [Commissioners] are seeking monetary damages rather than the restoration of the grand jury's integrity, the public's interest in the free flow of information to the news media is not presently in conflict with the public's interest in grand jury secrecy." The Court acknowledged a concern for the integrity of the grand jury; however, it observed that a clash of the Grand Jury Act and the Shield Law is a "question of policy suited to the legislative branch to align the values of the two potentially competing statutes." Further, the Court explained under these facts, the reporter did not commit a crime. "[O]nly the individual swearing the oath can violate the grand jury secrecy; it is the speaker...not the listener, who has the capacity to commit a crime." Lastly, the Court wrote regarding the media:

    [T]he media should act responsibly in exercising their statutory right, and when they do not, they may be answerable in defamation. And, examples of irresponsible journalism are known. But, the news media have a right to report news, regardless of how the information was received.

    In Pennsylvania, which differs from many states, the media's shield law is impenetrable. A reporter will not be required to reveal the identity of a source.