Showdown in Dodge City

Have you heard about Claire O’Brien, a reporter at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Kansas?  Ms. O’Brien finds herself fighting Kansas prosecutors over her decision not to reveal information from a confidential source.  She spoke to me at length about her case via telephone this morning.  Going forward, I plan to keep members posted.  In the meantime I wanted to let you all know SPJ is keeping tabs on the case. For one thing, our Legal Defense Fund Committee chair David Cuillier is already in touch with Ms. O’Brien and the attorney for the Daily Globe and publisher Gatehouse Media about a letter in support of her cause.

Ms. O’Brien was supposed to testify at what Kansas calls an “inquisition” today, but there has been a postponement.  She told me she did what reporters do in the course of their duties; she gave her word to a source linked to a murder case.  Now she’s willing to go to jail to protect that source and live up to her ethical commitments.  Still, she’s only human and seems to have given her obligations and actions plenty of thought.  Here are two quotes she gave the Associated Press:

“If I truly felt I had information about the murder of a human being on which part of a case could turn, it would be very sobering,” O’Brien said. “I would have to think long and hard and I am not sure I would withhold that, but the fact is I am absolutely sure in my mind the prosecutor is bullying me.”

And:

“I think the reporter’s only currency is her word  and I really did give it,” O’Brien said. “Every time I try to work myself through giving the information, I just can’t imagine myself being able to compromise my professional reputation to that extent. … Who would trust me again?”

Ms. O’Brien has been working for the paper for about nine months.  She moved to Kansas from Illinois after layoffs at her Gatehouse paper there.  Originally from Boston, Ms. O’Brien has twelve years of reporting experience under her belt.  She is understandably unnerved by her situation; the Kansas Supreme Court is going to look at her case.  She wonders what her decisions will mean for her career down the line.  While she’s willing to go to jail, she’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.

This is a complex case with very broad implications.  I hope to interview the Gatehouse Media attorney William Hurst for his take.  Again, I will keep you all posted on this.

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