In a decision that could have a big impact on all bloggers in New Jersey, a New Jersey trial judge ruled a self-declared “citizen watchdog” blogger has the same legal protections as a professional journalist. In re January 11, 2013 Subpoena by the Grand Jury of Union County, New Jersey, Prosecutor’s Docket No. 12 – 0001.

Plaintiff, Tina Renna, is the primary writer and editor of a blog entitled “The County Watchers.” The blog is located on the website of the Union County Watchdog Association (UCWA), an advocacy group that reports on waste, corruption and mismanagement in Union County, NJ. Plaintiff is the President of UCWA.

Ms. Renna authored two articles posted on “The County Watchers” blog in which she claimed to know the identities of sixteen county employees who used county-owned generators for personal use in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The Union County Prosecutor asked her to speak with county investigators about the matter. When she failed to respond, the Prosecutor issued a grand jury subpoena seeking to compel her testimony about her knowledge of the alleged improper use of the county generators.

Ms. Renna filed an Order to Show Cause to quash the subpoena, claiming it violated the Newsperson’s Privilege contained in New Jersey’s Shield Law, N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-21, et seq. which protects journalists from being forced to disclose information or sources obtained during professional news gathering activities. The New Jersey Shield Law has been described as providing the press in this State with the strongest possible protection from compulsory testimony in the nation.

In order to claim protection under the Newsperson’s Privilege, the Court found that three factors must be shown: (1) the claimant must demonstrate a nexus, connection or relationship to the news media; (2) the purpose of the claimant’s actions must be to gather and disseminate news; and (3) the materials sought to be protected must have been obtained in the course of professional newsgathering activities.

After holding a 2-day hearing at which Ms. Renna was the sole witness, analyzing the facts and reviewing the complicated law in this area, Judge Karen M. Cassidy, Assignment Judge for the Superior Court of New Jersey, Union County, ruled that Ms. Renna qualified for the Newsperson’s Privilege contained in New Jersey’s Shield Law because she met the three factors described above. First, the Court found that “The County Watchers” blog contained many posts by Ms. Renna and other bloggers about Union County governance and politics not covered by other news sources. Second, the Court ruled that Ms. Renna, the UCWA and “The County Watchers” blog had the requisite purpose of gathering and disseminating the news about Union County governance and politics to the general public. Third, the Court found that Ms. Renna’s activities and investigatory methods while gathering information for blog posts were part of her editorial process and therefore protected under the law. While acknowledging that the quality of Ms. Renna’s writing was not that of a professional reporter due to her use of profanity, poor grammar and bias, the Court ruled that a claimant need not be a professional to obtain protection under the Newsperson’s Privilege. As a result, the Court entered an Order quashing the grand jury subpoena.

The Court’s decision is annexed here – In re January 11, 2013 Subpoena by the Grand Jury of Union County, New Jersey

Memorandum of Law in Support of Ms. Renna’s Motion to Quash Subpoena – Memorandum of Law in Support of Order to Quash Grand Jury Subpeana

Reply Letter Brief in Support of Ms. Renna’s Motion to Quash Subpoena – Reply letter brief in support of motion to quash subpoena

Certification of Tina Renna in Support of Motion to Quash Subpoena – Certification of Tina Renna with Exhibits