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As presently constituted, the newsperson's privilege only extends to a person engaged on, engaged in, connected with, or employed by news media for the purpose of gathering, procuring, transmitting, compiling, editing or disseminating news for the general public. N.J. R. Evid. 508(a). "News media" is defined in the statute as newspapers, magazines, press associations, news agencies, wire services, radio, television or other similar printed, photographic, mechanical or electronic means of disseminating news to the general public. N.J. R. Evid. 508(b)a. The New Jersey Shield Law, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:84A-21 et seq., in turn, defines "news", "newspaper", "magazine", "news agency", "press association" and "wire service." These definitions make it clear that the New Jersey Legislature was concerned with protecting entities generally viewed as part of the news gathering apparatus in the United States.
An explosion occurred at the chemical plant of Napp Technologies, Inc. ("Napp"), resulting in the death of five Napp employees and injury to numerous others. Several lawsuits were instituted on behalf of the employees. Holt & Ross, Inc. ("H & R"), a public relations firm, distributed two press statements on behalf of Napp. The press statements dealt with an investigation Napp purportedly conducted into the causes of an explosion which had occurred at its chemical plant in Lodi, New Jersey on April 21, 1995. The press statements implicated Technic, Inc. ("Technic") and Patterson-Kelley Co., a Division of Harsco Corporation ("Patterson-Kelley") as responsible parties. As the consolidated lawsuits proceeded, Technic directed a subpoena to the records custodian at H & R. H & R sought to quash the subpoena claiming protection from compelled disclosure under the newsperson's privilege established by the New Jersey Shield Law, J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:84A-21 et seq. H & R argued that it was a member of the news media because it was regularly disseminating information to the public regarding newsworthy events. The special master determined that the witness was not protected by the New Jersey Shield Law, thereby denying the witness's motion to quash the subpoena. H & R appealed.
Was H & R, a public relations firm, entitled to the newsperson's privilege established by the New Jersey Shield Law, J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:84A-21 et seq, thereby warranting the quashal of the subpoena in question?
The trial court found that H & R did not made a prima facie showing that it fit within the definition of a newsperson and therefore was not entitled to the protections afforded by the New Jersey Shield Law. According to the court, a public relations firm was neither part of the traditional or nontraditional news media. It also did not fit within any of the constituents of the "news media" as those terms were defined in the New Jersey Shield Law, N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:84A-21 et seq. As a representative for the client, the public relations firm was in effect its spokesperson. As such, the public relations firm really was part of the news rather than a member of the news media reporting it. Further, the trial court found that the privilege was qualified, not absolute. Whether the privilege was overcome required a weighing of the claimed privilege and the opposing need for disclosure in light of the facts present in each case. The court found that H & R failed to establish that at the outset of its information gathering it intended to disseminate it to the public. As such, H & R’s motion to quash was denied.