Wis. judge refuses to issue subpoenas for 3 journalists

Saturday, December 1, 2012

BARABOO, Wis. — A Sauk County judge has refused to authorize subpoenas for three Madison reporters who covered a raw-milk dispute, saying Wisconsin’s reporter shield law protects them.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders says he believes the case marks the first time the shield law has been invoked since then-Gov. Jim Doyle signed it into law in 2010.

Under the law, judges can order reporters to testify, produce information or reveal a source’s identity only when it is “highly relevant” to the case or critical to at least one party’s argument. Attorneys would have to show they couldn’t get the information any other way and there was an overriding public interest in disclosing it.

The Sauk County case revolves around Amish farmer Vernon Hershberger, of Loganville, who sells raw milk. The Baraboo News Republic reported  on Nov. 29 that state agriculture investigators sealed Hershberger’s coolers in June 2010 because he hadn’t renewed the licenses he needed to produce and sell dairy products.

Jessica VanEgeren, a reporter with The Capital Times newspaper, WISC-TV reporter Marc Lovicott and WMTV-TV reporter Chris Woodard visited Hershberger’s farm in the ensuing days. They reported he was again selling raw milk to customers.

Hershberger was charged with four misdemeanors relating to license violations in December 2011. He’s set to stand trial in January.

The News Republic reported state Justice Department attorneys asked Judge Guy Reynolds to authorize subpoenas for VanEgeren, Lovicott and Woodard.

The reporters’ lawyers contended DOJ attorneys could get the same accounts of Hershberger’s alleged crimes from other people who visited his shop.

Reynolds ruled on Nov. 29 that DOJ attorneys hadn’t shown they couldn’t get the information from elsewhere in accordance with the shield law. But he said if it became clear they couldn’t obtain it from other witness, he might reconsider the subpoena request on the reporters.

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