Citizen journalists win one v. Apple

An appeals court handed a big victory to bloggers and citizen journalists in the Apple leak case.

A state appeals court on Friday rejected Apple Computer Inc.’s bid to identify the sources of leaked product information that appeared on Web sites, ruling that online reporters and bloggers are entitled to the same protections as traditional journalists.

“In no relevant respect do they appear to differ from a reporter or editor for a traditional business-oriented periodical who solicits or otherwise comes into possession of confidential internal information about a company,” Justice Conrad Rushing of the 6th District Court of Appeal wrote in a unanimous 69-page ruling.

“We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes ‘legitimate journalism,” he wrote. “The shield law is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news, and that is what petitioners did here.”

The online journalists are thus entitled to the protections provided under California’s shield law as well as the privacy protections for e-mails allowed under federal law, the court ruled.

I may love my Apple computer but I hated the way Apple the company was behaving; I also feared the way the lower court tried to tiptoe around this issue; so I salute the appeals court for standing up for the idea that anyone can commit an act of journalism.

: Key quotes from the ruling in the Times story:

In its ruling, the appeals court said online and offline journalists are equally protected under the First Amendment. “We can think of no workable test or principle that would distinguish ‘legitimate’ from ‘illegitimate’ news,” the opinion states. “Any attempt by courts to draw such a distinction would imperil a fundamental purpose of the First Amendment.”

: Here’s the PDF of the decision. The good bit about the First Amendment and us starts on page 35.

: So the court decides that the person doesn’t make journalism — you don’t have to be a journalist to commit an act of journalism:

We can think of no reason to doubt that the operator of a public Web site is a “publisher” for purposes of this language; the primary and core meaning of “to publish” is “[t]o make publicly or generally known; to declare or report openly or publicly; to announce; to tell or noise abroad; also, to propagate, disseminate (a creed or system).”

The court even gets into the issue of whether packaging makes journalism — that is, you don’t have to write a newspaper story to deliver the news:

Nor does Apple supply any colorable ground for declaring petitioners’ activities not to be legitimate newsgathering and dissemination. Apple asserts that petitioners merely reprinted “verbatim copies” of Apple’s internal information while exercising “no editorial oversight at all.” But this characterization, if accepted, furnishes no basis for denying petitioners the protection of the statute. A reporter who uncovers newsworthy documents cannot rationally be denied the protection of the law because the publication for which he works chooses to publish facsimiles of the documents rather than editorial summaries. The shield exists not only to protect editors but equally if not more to protect newsgatherers. The primacy Apple would grant to editorial function cannot be justified by any rationale known to us.

Moreover, an absence of editorial judgment cannot be inferred merely from the fact that some source material is published verbatim. It may once have been unusual to reproduce source materials at length, but that fact appears attributable to the constraints of pre-digital publishing technology, which compelled an editor to decide how to use the limited space afforded by a particular publication. This required decisions not only about what information to include but about how to compress source materials to fit. In short, editors were forced to summarize, paraphrase, and rewrite because there was not room on their pages to do otherwise.

Digital communication and storage, especially when coupled with hypertext linking, make it possible to present readers with an unlimited amount of information in connection with a given subject, story, or report. The only real constraint now is time– the publisher’s and the reader’s. From the reader’s perspective, the ideal presentation probably consists of a top-level summary with the ability to “drill down” to source materials through hypertext links. The decision whether to take this approach, or to present original information at the top level of an article, is itself an occasion for editorial judgment. Courts ought not to cling too fiercely to traditional preconceptions, especially when they may operate to discourage the seemingly salutary practice of providing readers with source materials rather than subjecting them to the editors’ own “spin” on a story.

: LATER: Eugene Volokh’s good analysis.

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  • http://ruthcalvo ruth

    Truth protected? What an amazing concept. It’s good to have a court declare that the public has a right to knowledge which is imparted very well by having access to original materials.

    Memos in the Lay-Skilling case showed what Enron’s treatment of public interest was, that they were published serves those in the position of making decisions in energy transmission, as just one instance of when news should be available.

  • http://www.youbitch.org/mt Rube

    So now anybody with a blog can post a company’s confidential papers online and not have to worry about getting sued? That’s insane.

    This isn’t about press freedom: This is about industrial espionage. Thanks to this ruling, anybody who wants can copy documents clearly labeled “confidential”, like the Apple documents, and post them on their blog without worry of repercussions.

    Why journalists, and now the pajamahideen, get away with this kind of crap is beyond me.

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