Reporter Can't Be Compelled to Name Source in Defamation Case, MN Appeals Court Rules

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Reporter shield law.

Range Development Company of Chisholm, et al., v. Star Tribune, et al.. MN reporter shield law

In 2013, a resident of an assisted living facility was found slouched in his chair, unresponsive. Police and ambulance personnel arrived, and found the resident seated in a urine-soaked chair. Police reported that the room was messy and cluttered, and the strong odor of urine compelled one officer to leave the room. The ambulance personnel noted that the floor was sticky.

A week later, one of the ambulance employees filed a report with the Minnesota Department of Health alleging a violation of the Vulnerable Adults Act. The Health Department's report substantiated the claims, and stated that copies were being provided to various government entities, including the St. Louis County Attorney.

Before the report's public release, Star Tribune reporter Paul McEnroe was given a copy of the report by a confidential source. He wrote an article, which contained nine alleged misstatements of fact.

The assisted living facility filed a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper, the reporter, and the ambulance service and its employees. Discovery focused on obtaining the name of the confidential source, which the reporter refused to disclose.

The plaintiff moved to compel discovery of the source's identity, since the suit focused on alleged variances with the article and the report. In particular, the article had stated that the resident was "barely alive" and that the case had been referred for criminal charges.

The district court ordered the report to disclose the source, and he appealed.

Under the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act, Minn. Stat. 595.021, et seq., a journalist has a privilege not to disclose sources, subject to certain exceptions. In a defamation case, a court may order disclosure if the person seeking disclosure can demonstrate that the identity of the source will lead to relevant evidence on the issue of actual malice. In addition, there must be probable cause to believe that the source has information clearly relevant to the issue of defamation which cannot be obtained by other means.

In this case, the Court of Appeals concluded that these tests were not met. In effect, the plaintiff's claim was based on the fact that the reporter had inaccurately reported the contents of the Health Department report. Since the reporter had already admitted that the article was based upon the report, no further relevant information could be determined by getting the name of the source.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court's order compelling disclosure. No. A16-0122 (Minn. Ct. App. Sep. 12, 2016)

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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