And I was right.
That's Tina Renna in the picture. She's the primary writer and editor of a blog entitled "The County Watchers," which is hosted on the website of the Union County Watchdog Association (UCWA), a 501(c)(3) she runs, which reports on "alleged waste, corruption, and mismanagement in Union County, N.J." In other words, she may be a conservative whackadoodle, and at least she's not a Democrat, but I don't know and don't much care: If she's practicing journalism she ought to be protected like one, even if she's playing for the other team.
Anyway, Renna wrote two blog posts on the alleged misuse of county-owned generators by county employees during Hurricane Sandy and also concerning the subsequent Union County Prosecutor's investigation. In those posts, she suggested she knew the names of 16 county employees who had done so:
I believe I know most if not all of the names of employees who are alleged to have taken home generators, including the county police who are charged with investigating chain saws that were taken about a year ago. That investigation involving a freeholder’s son is being allowed to drag on. It isn’t just three employees involved in generatorgate, with permission from their boss, as the county would like us to believe.The local prosecutors asked her to come in; she didn't. They sent her a grand jury subpoena compelling her to testify concerning her knowledge; she moved to quash it. Read more about the court's decision below the fold.
And, last week, after a two-day hearing, she won. Here's the decision, and the news article from which I learned about the case. Basically, Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy decided in applying the test from the earlier case, some bloggers are journalists, and others may not be (it's a diarist vs. commenter divide, kinda), and you just need to look at the facts. On the one hand, as Renna's attorney, Bruce Rosen explained:
[T]he Court should consider the original content and newsworthiness of the posts on the County Watcher's blog. These original stories include, "Generatorgate", the County's inability to account for funds spent at an annual summer concert event called "MusicFest," the County's granting of permission for an employee who is also the Union County Democratic Chair to work from home, alleged pension padding when a previously part-time county employee retired three months after becoming a full-time employee, the purchase of an expensive navigation system for county vehicles which included European driving directions, and the alleged theft of a county owned chain saw by a former freeholder's step-son. He further argues that Renna's writing is similar to Maureen Dowd or Paul Mulshine in that she engages in original investigative journalism. In addition, he asserts that many traditional news media sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, often demonstrate a political bias, yet they nonetheless fall squarely within the protections of the Shield Statute as television news stations.Of course. But maybe the prosecutors have a case:
They point to the following as evidence that Ms. Renna should not be considered a journalist: (1) Ms. Renna's use of profanities in her written blog and on videos posted on her site, (2) Ms. Renna's failure to publicly identify herself as a journalist, (3) Ms. Renna's frequent self-identification as a "watchdog" and "citizen activist," (4) spelling and grammar mistakes contained in the blog, (5) a single instance of plagiarism, (6) Mrs. Renna's failure to issue corrections or to indicate when content in the blog has been changed or modified, (7) alleged bias from Ms. Renna's husband's county employment termination and his subsequent freeholder candidacy, (8) Mrs. Renna's participation in local politics as a Republican Committee person in Cranford, and finally (8) Ms. Renna's failure to disclose such alleged bias to her readers....Guess what? She's totally still a journalist, as the Court explains:
For example, when questioning Ms. Renna about a post she authored criticizing the County for permitting the chair of the Union County Improvement Authority, Charlotte DeFilippo, to work from home and the employee's handicapped parking tags, Ms. Renna did not investigate whether Ms. DeFilippo had a medical reason necessitating the handicapped tags and the permission to work from home. Furthermore, they argue that her blog posts often devolve into personal attacks on county elected officials such as Freeholder Daniel Sullivan, Union County Democratic Chair Charlotte DeFilippo, and the Union County Director of Communications Sebastian D'Elia....
The State further argues that under the second statutory factor, the Watchdog Association's purpose, is not to gather and disseminate news, but rather to advocate for political change and to increase transparency and participation in government. Moreover, the State asserts that the County Watchers Blog is more akin to a public relations entity that functions for the primary purpose of publicizing and raising funds for the UCWA's activities and under Napp the privilege should not apply. This purpose, the State argues, is evident from the bias of the blog posts, the fact that the bloggers do not contact county elected officials for comments, Mrs. Renna's profanity laden/inappropriate outbursts at freeholder meetings, the UCWA's mission statement, and the fact that the blog posts do not distinguish between advocacy, opinion, and reporting.
In reviewing Ms. Renna's website, blog, and her numerous blog posts, it is clear that Ms. Renna and her two or three other bloggers do in fact author posts about alleged occurrences and issues related to Union County governance and politics not covered by other media sources. As pointed out during argument, most local publications no longer provide in-depth coverage of county news. Local newspapers and on-line publications show a lack of detail on, for example, freeholder meetings and actions taken by county government. Moreover, while the quality of Renna's writing is not akin to that of a print news reporter, or professional blogger such as Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report or Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, the Supreme Court in Too Much Media made clear that a claimant need not be a professional to obtain protection under the privilege. While, it is also evident that Ms. Renna's posts often devolve into ad hominem attacks characterizing county employees as "psychopaths" and "Nazis," prior to this point, the courts have not limited the protection to claimants who consistently and exclusively author newsworthy writings, or only to those who uphold certain journalistic standards in their writing and conduct.(They were Nazis, dude?) Was it done for a news-gathering/making purpose, even though she's totally biased? Heck yes:
Being a reporter and citizen watchdog are not mutually exclusive. In addition, the State cites to no cases or governing law which require that a news entity be unbiased in order to meet this second factor. In fact, many national publications such as The Weekly Standard (conservative) and The New Republic (liberal) have a point of view, yet are considered mainstream publications employing journalists to report on newsworthy events despite their ideological bent.And so that's it. She wins. Subpoena goes bye-bye. Good day for online journalism.
To learn more about shield laws in your state, go here.