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Weinberger v. Maplewood Review

September 11, 2003



In a defamation action, when the defendants are alleged to be the unnamed sources quoted in a newspaper article, the newspaper or its reporters may be required to disclose the identities of those sources if the plaintiff is able to meet each of the statutory requirements of Minn. Stat. § 595.025 (2002).

Reversed and remanded.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Page, Justice.

Dissenting, Meyer and Anderson, Paul, H., JJ.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.


This appeal arises from appellant Richard Weinberger's motion to compel the Maplewood Review and two of its reporters, Jason Tarasek and Wally Wakefield,*fn1 to disclose the identity of certain sources quoted in an article published by the Maplewood Review in January of 1997. Weinberger sought the identity of the sources in connection with a lawsuit he brought against Independent School District No. 622, Barbara Hallbrehder, Tim Hickey, Cletus Lipetzky, and Mark Klingsporn (collectively, "the Tartan Defendants") for defamation. In July 2000, Weinberger served Wakefield with a subpoena requesting a deposition and the identities of the sources quoted in the January 1997 article, but Wakefield refused to comply. Weinberger then filed a motion to compel disclosure, which the trial court granted. Wakefield appealed and the court of appeals reversed and remanded for additional findings.

On remand, the district court granted Weinberger's motion to compel. Wakefield appealed and again the court of appeals reversed, this time concluding that a nonparty newspaper reporter could not be required to disclose the source of allegedly defamatory information published about a public official when "the primary purpose of disclosure is not relevant to obtaining evidence of actual malice but rather to make the reporter a witness against defendants, and there is no prima facie showing that the statements are false or were made with actual malice." Weinberger v. Maplewood Review, 648 N.W.2d 249, 260 (Minn. App. 2002). We granted Weinberger's petition for further review and now reverse.

Weinberger sued the Tartan Defendants for defamation, alleging that they collaborated to remove him from his position as head football coach at Tartan High School by destroying his reputation through spreading false rumors and publishing false information in the Maplewood Review. The January 1997 article at the heart of this appeal discussed Weinberger's unexpected termination as head football coach and contained a number of quotes from alleged "sources" in the school district discussing why Weinberger was terminated. Although there were several quotes directly attributed to Lipetzky, Tartan's principal, the majority of the information in the article was attributed to unnamed sources. Of these statements, Weinberger identified at least 11 statements from the January 27, 1997, article that he contends are untrue and defamatory.*fn2 Although he maintains that Lipetzky, Klingsporn, and Hickey made these allegedly defamatory statements, he does not know which of these individuals, if any, actually made any of the statements in question.

In July 2000, Weinberger served Wakefield with a subpoena requiring that he submit to a deposition and provide all documents concerning or related to Weinberger. When Wakefield refused to comply, Weinberger filed a motion to compel. The district court denied Weinberger's motion because Weinberger had not exhausted all alternative sources for the information sought. After completing depositions of Lipetzky, Klingsporn, Hickey, and Hallbrehder, each of whom failed to identify who made the alleged defamatory statements noted above, Weinberger renewed his motion to compel.*fn3 The district court granted this motion, requiring that Wakefield provide by interrogatory answer the name of the original source of each statement identified by Weinberger as defamatory.

On appeal, the court of appeals reversed and remanded for further fact-finding consistent with Bauer v. Gannett Co. (KARE 11), 557 N.W.2d 608 (Minn. App. 1997).*fn4 On remand, the district court applied Bauer and concluded that on the facts of this case disclosure was appropriate and granted Weinberger's motion. In its order, the district court limited the required disclosure to the identification by written interrogatory as to "which defendant, if any, is the original source for each of the following statements."

Again, on appeal, the court of appeals reversed, concluding that Weinberger had: (a) failed to establish a prima facie case that the statements at issue are false or made with actual malice; (b) failed to demonstrate that the disclosure ordered will clearly lead to relevant evidence of actual malice; and (c) failed to demonstrate how his interest in disclosure is more significant than the chilling effect that will result from making a reporter a witness against sources to whom he promised confidentiality.

Resolution of this case requires us to interpret the defamation exception found in the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act,*fn5 Minn. Stat. §§ 525.021 through 525.025.*fn6 We review the construction of statutes de novo. See Ryan Contracting, Inc. v. JAG Inv., Inc., 634 N.W.2d 176, 181 (Minn. 2001) ("Statutory construction is * * * a question of law which we review de novo."). When interpreting a statutory provision, we first look at whether the words of the statute are clear or ambiguous. Am. Family Ins. Group v. Schroedl, 616 N.W.2d 273, 277 (Minn. 2000). If the words of the statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, we will not ignore the clear meaning "under the pretext of pursuing the spirit." Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (2002). In doing so, we construe the words and phrases of the statute according to their plain and ordinary meaning and only find the language ambiguous when it is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation. Id.

The act was designed to "protect the public interest and the free flow of information" by giving the news media "a substantial privilege not to reveal sources of information or to disclose unpublished information." Minn. Stat. § 595.022. This privilege protects any person "who is or has been directly engaged in the gathering, procuring, compiling, editing, or publishing of information for the purpose of transmission, dissemination or publication to the public." Minn. Stat. § 595.023. While recognizing and designing a substantial privilege for the news media, the legislature created two exceptions to that privilege that require disclosure of unnamed sources under certain limited circumstances. The first exception, one not relevant here, is applicable in criminal cases; the second is applicable in "any defamation actions."*fn7 Minn. Stat. §§á595.024 (criminal), 595.025 (defamation). The exception found in section 595.025 requires disclosure when "the person seeking disclosure can demonstrate that the identity of the source will lead to relevant evidence on the issue of actual malice." Minn. Stat. §á595.025, subd. 1. The person seeking disclosure must also show that "there is ...

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