Judge rules Union County blogger is protected by the state’s shield law

Posted: April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

As reported by the Newark Star-Ledger:

ELIZABETH — In a decision that could impact bloggers across New Jersey, a Superior Court judge ruled today that a self-declared citizen watchdog who writes stinging critiques of Union County government has the same legal protections as a professional journalist.

While questioning the quality and tone of the writing in Tina Renna’s blog posts, Judge Karen Cassidy concluded Renna “obtained material in the course of professional newsgathering activities” with the aim of disseminating it over the internet.

As such, Cassidy wrote in her opinion, Renna should be covered by the state’s shield law. Under that law, one of the most powerful of its kind in the country, journalists generally cannot be forced to reveal their sources or other sensitive information to law enforcement or grand juries.

The judge’s ruling quashed a subpoena served on Renna by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which wanted the names of 16 county employees Renna claimed had improperly used county-owned portable generators after Hurricane Sandy. Renna made the allegation in a December blog post but did not name the employees.

Renna, 51, of Cranford, called the decision a victory for the public.


“I’m happy for me and the others who stand up to the machine — the prosecutor’s office and Democratic Party,” she said.

Later, in a blog post on her site, countywatchers.com, Renna declared she was not “an arm of law enforcement” and accused Prosecutor Theodore Romankow of using his office to “harass” her.

Renna, the wife of a former independent candidate for Union County freeholder, has been a thorn in the side of county officials since 2005, blasting what she sees as injustice and sometimes uncovering juicy news items through sources and the Open Public Records Act.

Some posts are merely snarky. Others are full-throated partisan attacks that have characterized county employees as “psychopaths” and “Nazis.”

Those comments notwithstanding, the judge ruled Renna and other bloggers on her site “do in fact author posts about alleged occurrences and issues relative to Union County governance and politics.”

Seton Hall University law professor Thomas Healy, who specializes in First Amendment issues, said the ruling appears to stretch the coverage provide by the state shield law. That’s probably good for the public discourse, he said.

“If we don’t cover any electronic media, then you’re not going to get a lot of people engaged in what we would consider journalism,” Healy said.

With more people writing, however, the definition of journalism becomes blurred.
“There’s not a clear division between blogs and electronic media and traditional media,” Healy said. “There’s a whole spectrum out there.”

Renna’s lawyer, Bruce Rosen, contends the prosecutor wanted his client’s sources — not just the names of employees who allegedly used generators — in an attempt to dissuade others from talking to Renna.

“The prosecutor was trying to silence her,” Rosen said.

Romankow disputes the claim. In a statement, he also questioned whether Renna fabricated the blog post about the generators, then invoked the shield law so she would not be unmasked.

“Personally, I believe she was caught in a lie and chose to waste time and money by hiding,” the prosecutor said.

He said his office is considering an appeal.

Star-Ledger staff writer Mark Mueller contributed to this report.

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