The New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by life coach and blogger Shellee Hale, who argues that a state appellate court wrongly determined that she wasn't a "journalist" for purposes of the state's shield law.
Hale, who criticized the software company Too Much Media on a message board, argues that she was acting as an "internet reporter investigating corruption" at the time she posted her comments on the message board, and therefore is entitled to protect the identity of her sources.
New Jersey's reporter shield law broadly allows journalists to keep their sources' identities confidential. But the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled that Hale could not claim the benefit of that law because she wasn't a journalist. "Defendant has produced no credentials or proof of affiliation with any recognized news entity, nor has she demonstrated adherence to any standard of professional responsibility regulating institutional journalism, such as editing, fact-checking or disclosure of conflicts of interest," the court wrote.
The lawsuit grew out of allegedly defamatory posts by Hale on Oprano, which calls itself "the Wall Street Journal for the online adult entertainment industry." In one post, Hale hinted that Too Much Media engaged in "fraudulent, unethical and illegal uses of technology," according to the appellate court's opinion.
Too Much Media sued Hale for defamation and attempted to discover the identities of people who provided her with information. She unsuccessfully argued to the trial judge and appellate court that the state's shield law gave her the right to protect her sources' identities.
After losing in the appellate court, Hale asked New Jersey's highest court to consider her case.
Her lawyer, Jeffrey Pollock, argues that the lower court's decision could put all online journalists at risk of losing the benefits of the shield law. "If the court were to decide that people writing on the Internet, for the public's benefit, who cite confidential sources are not entitled to the shield law, you are going to have a big problem with freedom of the press in the future."
Too Much Media's lawyer, Joel Kreizman, counters that Hale wasn't acting as a reporter in that she didn't publish news on her own blog or on a Web site affiliated with a news organization. "She participated in an online conversation. That's not reporting," Kreizman says. "Even if you're a reporter working for a recognized newspaper, that doesn't mean you can go outside your newspaper, on a chatroom, and just defame people," he adds.