An Illinois case that sought to strip technology site TechnoBuffalo of its reporters' privilege has been resolved in the site's favor, a decision that bodes well for online publications. Nearly a year ago, the publication received an anonymous tip with the specs of Motorola’s Droid Bionic, and after investigating and confirming the information with an inside source at Motorola, the story was written and published.
Several days later, JohnsByrne — the Illinois-based company in charge of printing the leaked "Tips and Tricks" manual — contacted TechnoBuffalo asking for the identity of the anonymous tipster. At the time, TechnoBuffalo’s website stated "if you want your identity kept secret, we will take your name to the grave" and as such, President Jon Rettinger refused the publisher’s request. "Our hands would be tied for what we could do in the future, and I thought we would take a huge reputation hit."
"We stood up for what was right."
JohnsByrne then brought the case to court, suing TechnoBuffalo for the tipsters identity in order to pursue damages to compensate for its damaged relationship with Motorola. The phone manufacturer’s role in the case is unclear, but Rettinger speculated in an interview that Motorola may have pressured the publisher into legal action. JohnsByrne also sued Google in an attempt to obtain emails that would provide information on TechnoBuffalo’s anonymous source, as well as AT&T because, Rettinger reports, one of the leaked photos contained a reflection that "looked like an iPhone," and the publisher likely wanted access to the tipsters text or photo history.
According to Rettinger, he believed that his site was clearly protected under Illinois Shield Law and that the case was "cut and dry." However, he was in for a big surprise in January, when Cook County Judge Michael Panter ruled that TechnoBuffalo did not qualify for reporters’ privilege and would have to release the source’s personal information. Rettinger prepared for an appeal, and filed a request for the Judge to reconsider. Despite having incurred steep legal fees, Rettinger says "I was prepared to spend every cent that I had on this case. I was prepared to go to jail."
"TechnoBuffalo is inviting conduct which may or may not be legal."
The case took a surprising twist on July 13th, when Judge Panter overturned his original ruling in response to the motion to reconsider. Although Judge Panter sided with TechnoBuffalo, he notes in his ruling that the site’s tactics for soliciting scoops aren’t entirely on the up and up: "Encouraging and enabling people to violate relationships of trust with their employers and to steal proprietary information may be odious. It may weaken the very industry that TechnoBuffalo depends upon."
Rettinger defends TechnoBuffalo’s practices, saying that the site was "certainly not encouraging anyone to steal or lie." Rather, he thinks that the Judge’s claim that such tactics "are particularly detrimental to the intellectual property industry" is just "another case of him not understanding the industry." Since the incident, TechnoBuffalo has changed the language on its News Tips page to simply read "Have a tip for us? Fill out the form below and we’ll look it over!"
Earlier this month, JohnsByrne agreed not to appeal the ruling on the condition that TechnoBuffalo does not sue to recover legal fees. The final outcome of this crucial case set a precedent that establishes reporters’ privilege as a right for online media, not just traditional television and print news sources. Before the first ruling was overturned, JohnsByrne v TechnoBuffalo was referenced in a cease and desist notice that Motorola sent to Pocketnow: "Illinois courts have recently made clear that websites such as pocketnow.com are not entitled to the same First Amendment protections afforded traditional news media."
"We're finally taking steps to being considered mainstream media."
If the original ruling had held, it may have been used as a weapon against online journalists and had a significant chilling effect on an industry that relies on anonymous tips. While this decision certainly won’t prevent similar cases from cropping up in the future, Rettinger says "it’s a huge step, a big step in protecting us." The case sets a precedent that may influence future decisions regarding online publications nationwide, but it may not be as big of a step as Rettinger claims — it sets a strong precedent for cases in Illinois, but bloggers in other states will have their own uphill battles to fight.