Blogger Protected By Professional Journalist Shield Law, Court Rules

A crusading blogger who regularly reports on rampant corruption in the Union County, New Jersey, government does not have to give up her sources to a local prosecutor, a judge has ruled.

Tina Renna qualifies for the same protections as so-called professional journalists under the state’s “shield law” (section 2A:84A-21 of the New Jersey statutes — anachronistically called the “newspaperman’s privilege”), the judge determined. Under that statute, any person legitimately engaged in news gathering has what the law calls a privilege not to disclose or divulge to government any sensitive information involved in a story.

Renna, who considers herself a citizen watchdog, has been publishing The County Watchdog blog since 2005. The case that get her into this particular legal mess involved county employees allegedly using county-owned generators for personal use after Hurricane Sandy. The prosecutor served a grand jury subpoena on Renna for her source(s) for the “GeneratorGate” story. Renna refused to comply, prompting a hearing in New Jersey Superior Court before Judge Karen Cassidy.

Judge Cassidy ruled that the subpoena should be quashed (i.e., canceled) because Renna engages in original news reporting just like the traditional news media and therefore qualifies for the shield law’s protection privileges.

Citing a state supreme court case, the judge noted that the privilege applies on a case-by-case basis to “non-traditional electronic forms of communication” as well as traditional media outlets and that “digital news outlets, particularly blogs, are increasingly present and vital to the delivery of news to the public in our modern age.” In this particular instance, the court explained that “In reviewing Ms. Renna’s website, blog, and her numerous blog posts, it is clear that Ms. Renna and her two or three other bloggers do in fact author posts about alleged occurrence sand issues relating to Union County governance and politics not covered by other media sources.”

Renna said she was pleased with the judge’s analysis: “I’m happy for me and the others who stand up to the machine — the prosecutor’s office and Democratic Party.”

After the release of Judge Cassidy’s ruling, Renna wrote on her blog that “I am the first blogger in New Jersey history to be deemed protected by the New Jersey Newspersons Shield Law and an important precedent has been set which may protect and inspire other citizen journalists to watchdog their government in place of traditional journalism…”

If this decision holds up subject to a possible appeal, it could set a freedom-of-speech precedent to enable other muckraking bloggers and citizen journalists to engage in investigative journalism, the kind of reporting that has been often abandoned by local television and newspapers.