SAN FRANCISCO — California law allows a reporter who quoted an unpublished Shaklee Corp. memorandum in a news story to refuse to turn over the document to former Shaklee distributors who are being sued by the company in Utah, a federal magistrate has ruled.
In a decision made public Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Frederick Woelflen said Los Angeles Times reporter Victor F. Zonana was covered by California's shield law, which protects news reporters from contempt of court for refusing to disclose confidential sources or unpublished information.
Woelflen said the case appears to be the first to decide whether "unpublished information" extends beyond a reporter's own notes to include a document that was written by someone else.
Suit in Federal Court
The suit, pending in U.S. District Court in Utah, was filed by Shaklee against El Marie Gunnell and Franklin Gunnell, former distributors of the company's health foods, cosmetics and house cleaning products.
Their distributorship was terminated in 1978 when Shaklee accused the Gunnells of falsely saying that the company was misrepresenting its products and that Shaklee and its founder were a hoax and a fraud. The Gunnells contended that the statements were true and countersued for wrongful termination.
An article on Shaklee by Zonana on Jan. 26 quoted a memorandum by Gary Shansby, the company's former chief executive officer, discussing claims made for Shaklee's health products.
Woelflen said the Gunnells tried to get the memorandum from Shaklee and Shansby, who both denied that the document existed. The Gunnells then filed a subpoena asking for the memorandum from Zonana, who testified that it exists and that he had quoted it accurately, but refused to give it up, citing the California shield law.
The magistrate said the document was covered by the law's provision excusing a reporter from contempt for withholding "unpublished information."
The law refers to information "obtained or prepared" in news-gathering, Woelflen said.
"If only documents generated by the reporter were intended to be privileged, the word 'obtained' would have little or no meaning," Woelflen said, adding that the shield law is interpreted broadly by California courts.