Victory for Fla. reporter is victory for state shield law

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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Florida Circuit Court Judge Rosa Rodriguez earlier this month proved again that a shield law is as strong as the judge enforcing it.

Florida’s shield law — like shield laws in most states — allows prosecutors and civil litigants to overcome the journalist’s privilege against testifying if they can show that the reporter’s testimony is relevant to an issue in the case, is unavailable from other sources and satisfies a compelling interest. Whether a subpoenaing party has made this showing is almost always a subjective determination, leaving a journalist asserting the privilege at the mercy of the judge hearing the case.

In State of Florida v. Spence-Jones, Rodriguez stood strongly behind Florida’s shield law and held that the state had not met its burden of overcoming the privilege.

At issue in Spence-Jones was whether the state could compel Jawan Strader, a reporter for WFOR-TV in Miami, to testify concerning an interview he had conducted with former City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who had been charged with bribery and grand theft. The prosecution claimed that unpublished portions of the interview would assist it in proving that Spence-Jones had made false statements to the news media about the missing funds and in impeaching her testimony if she testified at trial. (Spence-Jones was acquitted of the charges on March 16.)

In an order entered on March 7, Rodriguez rejected the prosecution’s claims. First, she ruled, the state failed to show that the information was unavailable from other sources, as the state conceded that Spence-Jones had made many public statements about the missing funds. Second, she held, a desire to impeach a witness was not a compelling enough interest to overcome Strader’s privilege against testifying.

Rodriguez therefore quashed the subpoena and, in doing so, upheld both the letter and the spirit of Florida’s shield law.

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