Judge says student journalist can keep his sources confidential

Student journalists have the same federal protections against being forced to reveal confidential sources as their professional counterparts, a federal district judge ruled in December.

The decision granted Pinchas Shapiro, a student editor of The Commentator at Yeshiva University, the right to maintain the confidentiality of sources he used in an article regarding a teacher’s lawsuit against the Jewish institution.

The teacher, Diane Persky, claimed university officials practiced religious discrimination when they demoted her and restricted her from participating in recruiting trips to Israel. In October Persky asked the court to compel Shapiro to reveal the identities of his sources. In the article the unnamed sources corroborated Persky’s allegations, saying that John Fisher, director of Enrollment Management at Yeshiva, decided to limit Persky’s role because she was “not the proper role model for our girls.” Shapiro said the sources spoke to him on the condition that their identities not be revealed.

In his deposition, Shapiro declined to provide the information, asserting a journalistic privilege, and Senior District Judge Lawrence M. McKenna upheld that right in his Dec. 9 ruling.

Although McKenna agreed that Shapiro’s information was highly relevant and critical for the lawsuit, he held that Persky failed to show that the information could not be obtained by other means or from other sources.

McKenna ruled Shapiro could claim a journalistic privilege for the material he gathered for the article because he intended to publish it. The judge also explicitly recognized Shapiro’s right to a reporter’s privilege in his role as a student journalist.

“The fact that Shapiro is a student journalist as opposed to a professional journalist does not preclude him from the class of persons entitled to claim the privilege,” the federal judge wrote.

Shapiro said the decision will provide a certain level of respect and responsibility that might not otherwise be afforded to student journalists.

“Judge McKenna’s decision … allows student journalists to better serve their constituencies by protecting journalists’ confidential sources, notes and correspondences and by allowing them to offer investigative, balanced and insightful reporting,” Shapiro said.

McKenna said Persky could re-apply for the motion to compel if she can provide evidence that there is no other available source for the information.

Shapiro was represented pro bono by SPLC Referral Attorney Erin Sheehy of the New York City law firm Debevoise and Plimpton.

SPLC View: This was an important victory for student journalists. While most courts have accepted