Minn. appeals court overturns subpoena of reporter notes

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


MINNEAPOLIS – Unpublished details from a reporter's interview with a man who shot two police officers before killing himself during a standoff are off-limits to authorities, the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided Dec. 24.

The appeals court overturned a district judge's ruling that required a Mankato Free Press reporter to turn over notes and give testimony about his phone conversation with Jeff Skjervold, who wounded two officers during the Dec. 23, 2006, incident at his Amboy home.

The case was a rare test of Minnesota's reporter shield law, which the news media uses to protect the identity of sources or unpublished information. Known as the Free Flow of Information Act, it contains exceptions if officials can meet a three-part test.

The appeals panel led by Judge Christopher Dietzen, who will join the Supreme Court next month, said District Court Judge Norb Smith was wrong to authorize Blue Earth County attorney's request ordering the reporter to divulge information beyond what he put in the newspaper the day after the standoff.

“Essentially, the county attorney argues that it needs to conduct discovery to find an injustice, but declines to connect the discovery to a particular injustice,” Dietzen wrote. “We conclude that the statute requires that the particular injustice be identified.”

The reporter spoke with the 41-year-old Skjervold as he barricaded himself for 7½ hours in his home. A Mankato police officer shot during the incident lost his right eye and another from nearby St. Peter escaped serious injury because he was wearing a helmet.

County Attorney Ross Arneson said the reporter, Dan Nienaber, was among the last people to speak to Skjervold. During their investigation after the standoff, Arneson authorities wanted to question Nienaber about his interview but found him uncooperative.

“It's a bit baffling the reporter wouldn't voluntarily come forward. Much less try to resist it in court,” Arneson said on Dec. 24. No decision has been made about whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court, he said.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Free Press, said the fact that few cases are brought under the shield law adds to the importance of each ruling.

“This decision reminds everyone who might think about using a subpoena against a journalist that those circumstances are very narrow,” he said. “Unless you have a compelling case, if you are thinking about subpoenaing a journalist, you might as well forget it.”