The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld a state law that has long protected news reporters from being forced to disclose confidential sources, saying reporters have a "right to report news, regardless of how the information was received."
In a 4-1 decision, the state's highest court reaffirmed the so-called shield law, which originally was enacted in 1937, and said it provided an "absolute protection" of a source's identity - even if the information involves a grand-jury matter.
"The Shield Law was enacted to protect the free flow of information to the news media in their role as information providers to the general public," Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote.
The ruling, which was dated Wednesday and released yesterday, came in a case in which two former Lackawanna County commissioners sued the Scranton Times-Tribune over a 2004 story that reported that they were not cooperative during grand-jury testimony about alleged brutality at the county prison.
Representing the ex-commissioners, Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague contended that an exception should be made because the communication violated the state Grand Jury Act and thus constituted a crime.
Sprague questioned whether a source even existed and said the two former commissioners should be allowed to find out to help press the defamation case against the paper.
The justices said that only those who take an oath of secrecy before a grand jury can violate that oath. Thus, the court said, "it is the speaker" and "not the listener" who "has the capacity to commit a crime."
Prosecutors, court officials and jurors are barred from disclosing grand-jury material, though witnesses and their lawyers are not precluded from discussing such matters.
W. Thomas McGough Jr., a Pittsburgh lawyer who represented the newspaper, said the decision was an important reaffirmation of a "bedrock principle of Pennsylvania law."
The shield law states that no reporter "shall be required to disclose the source of any information procured or obtained by such person, in any legal proceeding, trial or investigation before any government unit."
Geoffrey R. Johnson, another member of the Sprague firm involved in the case, said, "We respect the court's opinion, and nonetheless we are prepared to prosecute the defamation case vigorously."
Castille was joined in the decision by Justices Thomas G. Saylor, J. Michael Eakin and Max Baer. Justice Debra Todd, who took part in the Superior Court decision of the matter, did not participate. Justice Jane Cutler Greenspan, the court's newest member, was not yet on the court when the case was argued.
Justice Seamus P. McCaffery disagreed with the majority, saying that the ex-commissioners should have a right to determine whether the source exists.
Castille said the shield law and secrecy provisions of the grand-jury act would be more directly in conflict if, hypothetically, the state were seeking to learn the identity of a source during a criminal investigation aimed at determining the source of a grand-jury leak.
"That question, however, is not before us and we save its consideration for another day," Castille wrote.