Watchdog has her day in court with prosecutor

In question is whether the New Jersey Shield Law, one of the strongest in the nation, actually applies to bloggers. But it is not the first time this issue has come up in the state.

UNION COUNTY — It could be a little while before anyone learns whether blogger Tina Renna is protected by the New Jersey Shield Law for newspersons or will have to reveal to a grand jury what she knows about the employees who took home county-owned generators.

On Friday there were more questions than answers after Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy heard arguments from attorneys on both sides of the issue. Enough so that the judge decided to reserve her decision and order a full hearing for Feb. 28.

At issue is a battle between the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which is conducting an inquiry into how many generators were taken home by county employees, and Renna, who claimed on her blog that she knew the names of 15 to 20 employees who availed themselves of county property.

When the Prosecutor’s Office tried to obtain the names from Renna and she never responded, she was slapped with a subpoena to testify before the grand jury. Renna retaliated by seeking protection under the Shield law.

The county, on the other hand, maintained from the start that there were only four or five county employees who took home generators, all with permission from their supervisors. The Prosecutor’s Office believed the same. In fact, Prosecutor Theodore Romankow admitted as much in an interview last week with LocalSource, saying he did not believe the blogger had the names she claimed.

Renna, on the other hand, has never hid from the fact that she dislikes Romankow and his role as Union County Prosecutor.

On Dec. 4 in a blog posting about the generator issue, Renna said she had the names of most, if not all, the employees who took home the generators. The blogger also accused Romankow of hiding this information.

“There is no law and order when the county prosecutor is a political hack charged with protecting the machine and its underlings,” she wrote on her blog Dec. 4, maintaining that “generatorgate was an opportunity to shine a light on the larger problem of rampant employee theft and mismanagement.”

Previously Renna said she would be willing to hand over the names of the employees to the state attorney general but to date she has not done so. Romankow also offered to take the names to the attorney general, but the blogger has not taken him up on that offer either.

In question is whether the New Jersey Shield Law, one of the strongest in the nation, actually applies to bloggers. But it is not the first time this issue has come up in the state.

According to the New Jersey Press Association, there is state case law supporting bloggers seeking protection under this law, but the issue is complex and not every blogger wins their case.

The court held in Too Much Media LLC vs. Shellee Hale that although the Shield Law allowed news reporters to protect the confidentiality of sources and information gathered through their work, online message boards were not similar to the types of news entities listed in the statute. Therefore the blogger in this case was not entitled to claim the privilege.

Later, the Supreme Court actually made it easier for individuals associated with online publications to seek protection under the Shield law as a result of this case. In eliminating the lower court’s requirements, the state high court ruled that whether a person adheres to professional journalism norms is “irrelevant.”

Interestingly, Renna’s attorney, a New Jersey media lawyer, commented on this particular case in 2011 when he submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of North Jersey Media Group, Inc. and New Jersey Press Association. Comments he also made in another interview further substantiate his belief that bloggers would have a lot of explaining to do if they went to court.

Interviewed by Aaron Mackey, a reporter with Reporter’s Privilege, Rosen spoke quite openly about the problems bloggers might face when attempting to invoke the Shield law.

“If you collect news and its clear you’re connected to a news organization, you’ll be fine,” Rosen said at the time, adding “if you’re not connected with any news organization and your venting online, you may not have those protections.”

Rosen also said people who host blogs and view themselves as citizen journalists may face hurdles to invoking the Shield Law.
“For the general public, it makes it harder for individual bloggers to have automatic protection,” he said, pointing out “they’re going to have to pass that test.”

Friday in court, Assistant Prosecutor Robert Vanderstreet argued this point, explaining that Renna failed to meet the required Shield Law criteria as a member of the news media.

He said because she did not follow professional standards and usually identified herself as a member of the watchdog activist group and not a reporter, that would have exempted her from protection under the Shield Law.

Cassidy had plenty of questions for Rosen on this issue, the majority focusing on whether Renna revealed to these sources that she was indeed a reporter. In the end, there were enough questions left hanging in the air for this judge to order a full hearing where this could be further fleshed out.

Rosen was concerned the hearing would become a “fishing expedition,” but Cassidy assured both attorneys the focus would be very narrow.
To ensure this, the judge requested that prior to the hearing both attorneys submit “very short” legal briefs on the direction their arguments will take.

When reached after court Friday, Vanderstreet said he was “pleased about the outcome,” but could not comment further because the case was ongoing. Romankow also said he could not comment. Rosen was unable to be reached.

Cassidy ordering a full hearing was a plus for the Prosecutor’s Office, but this throws a wrench in the Prosecutor’s Office wrapping up their inquiry and providing county officials with a report on the matter.

Even if Cassidy rules against Renna and is ordered to appear before the grand jury, the blogger still could appeal the decision, keeping the matter hung up in the courts for months. Given Renna’s past history involving lawsuits against the county, it is likely the blogger would appeal if she lost.

Since 2005, Renna has brought legal action against the county multiple times and when she lost, the blogger appealed the decision. That means it could be a long time before anyone knows how many employees took home generators.

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