A bankruptcy judge in Delaware has ordered more than 120 people to reveal any contact with Bloomberg reporters in the last 60 days, prompting the news outlet to ask a state district court to overrule the judge's order and sparking an outcry from a broad coalition of media organizations.
Prompted by alleged “leaks of sensitive, non-public information” in the bankruptcy proceedings of mining company Molycorp, Judge Christopher Sontchi has ordered debtors and creditors in the case -- as well as their legal representatives -- to file a declaration by Tuesday detailing any contact with Bloomberg. Bloomberg reporter Jodi Xu Klein published several articles in December and January containing confidential information about the case, the judge’s ruling says.
Bloomberg filed a motion Friday asking Sontchi to put the order on hold, reconsider and allow the company to intervene in the case. The organization also asked the judge to specify which information in Klein’s pieces violated the court’s orders, and which orders it violated.
While Judge Sontchi has not ruled on the substance of Bloomberg's filing, on Tuesday he denied the organization's request to make a decision before sources were required to turn in their declaration, in effect denying the motion. Bloomberg has filed an appeal in district court seeking to overrule the decision.
“As currently drafted, the Order is overly broad and vague and therefore unconstitutionally infringes upon, and impermissibly chills, the First Amendment rights of Bloomberg, any sources it may have regarding Molycorp, and the public,” reads the Bloomberg filing.
Molycorp -- the U.S.’s only producer of rare-earth elements used in batteries, magnets and high-tech products like cell phones -- filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June after a sharp drop in commodities prices. The company is set to decide in the coming months on a plan to exit bankruptcy.
In a statement, Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait said the order would make it more difficult for the company to cover the proceedings.
“The order issued by the Delaware bankruptcy court last Thursday strikes at the heart of the First Amendment and the fundamental mission of a free press: to provide transparency into important public events, including the bankruptcy of the largest rare-earths producer in the U.S.,” he said.
In a joint letter, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and seven major U.S. media organizations -- Associated Press, First Look Media, Gannett, The McClatchy Company, National Public Radio, Tribune Publishing and The Washington Post -- have also urged the judge to back down.
“While the court has a legitimate interest in examining a possible violation of its confidentiality order, we ask the court to take steps to ensure that it does not unnecessarily intrude into the constitutionally protected newsgathering activities of reporters,” the letter reads. “An overly broad investigation into sources will necessarily chill other sources from talking to journalists and deprive the public of information.”
Sontchi’s order may seem overreaching, but it is not unheard of for a judge to ask sources to reveal their contacts with the press; most states protect journalists from having to divulge their sources, but the same protections are not afforded to sources themselves.
What is unusual is the scope of the order, says Stuart Karle, a specialist in media law and a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
“The idea of calling in 100 people and asking for all of their contacts with Bloomberg news is overreaching from a practical perspective, but also deeply intrusive of person’s contacts with the press,” Karle said. “The judge can manage his docket in better way that will not interfere with the function of the press.”