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Gastman v. North Jersey Newspapers Co.

Decided: February 25, 1992.

MARVIN GASTMAN, D.O. AND RINGWOOD MEDICAL GROUP, P.A., PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
NORTH JERSEY NEWSPAPERS COMPANY, NANCY RUBENSTEIN AND JANE DOE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.

Long, Baime and Thomas. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.

Baime

The opinion of the court was delivered by

BAIME, J.A.D.

We granted leave to appeal to review the Law Division's interlocutory order, directing North Jersey Newspapers Company and its editor, Nancy Rubenstein, to disclose the identity of an individual whose anonymous letter appeared in the letters to the editor column. The letter allegedly defamed plaintiff, Marvin Gastman, a practicing osteopath, by erroneously asserting that he had misrepresented his medical qualifications. Plaintiff

instituted a libel action against defendants and sought the name of the author of the letter. In granting plaintiff's motion, the Law Division held that the New Jersey Shield Law (N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-21) does not protect the confidentiality of information voluntarily furnished to the news media. The court also concluded that the privilege established by the Shield Law applied only to those actively engaged in the news gathering process and not to the newspaper itself or its editor.

We disagree and reverse. We hold that the privilege protects the confidentiality of the author of an unsolicited letter which is published by a newspaper. We also conclude that the protection accorded by the Shield Law is fully applicable to the newspaper itself and to an editor who is not directly involved in news gathering activities. Finally, we are of the view that a source's expectations of confidentiality are irrelevant in determining the applicability of the privilege.

The facts are not in dispute. On May 28, 1990, Suburban Trends published a letter to the editor. The author had originally submitted the letter without a signature. Subsequently, the letter-writer contacted Suburban Trends' editor, Nancy Rubenstein, to inquire as to whether it would be published. On being informed of Suburban Trends' policy to refuse to publish anonymous letters without a "name on file," the author submitted a second letter, identical to the first but signed.

The letter erroneously stated that doctors of osteopathy have less training than chiropractors. The letter also recounted that an osteopath who for many years had practiced in Ringwood was attempting to deceive the public by using the designation M.D. The letter suggested that the "impostor" should be removed from the area. The identity of the letter-writer was withheld.

Plaintiff, apparently the only osteopathic physician in Ringwood, retained an attorney who wrote Suburban Trends and demanded a retraction. Shortly thereafter, a second letter was published in which the author, an osteopathic medical student,

pointed out the misstatements contained in the initial letter with regard to the description of the training and qualifications of osteopaths. The newspaper, however, did not retract the prior letter and, instead, suggested that it publish an ...


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