A New Jersey court has recently weighed in on the ongoing effort to determine who is a “journalist” these days. And while the opinion does not tell us exactly who can claim that label, it does tell us that a disgruntled graduate student cannot.
Joseph Oettinger, III, a graduate student at Rutgers University, got irritated with Amy Wollock, a Rutgers professor who refused to approve Oettinger for a teaching certificate until he took some additional humanities classes. It is not a stretch to say that Oettinger over reacted. He set up a Web site called amywollock.com, which he described as a “web gripe site.” But Oettinger set that site up using a gmail account that he’d apparently created listing Wollock as the registrant.
Wollock filed a criminal complaint against Oettinger, claiming his behavior constituted harassment. In the course of the investigation, police obtained a search warrant to search Oettinger’s residence. When the police arrived to execute the warrant, Oettinger asked what the warrant was about, to which the police replied, it was “about a Web site.” Oettinger responded that he had a lot of Web sites. And despite Oettinger’s call to his attorney, the police executed the warrant and seized about 18 items.
Ultimately, Oettinger brought a lawsuit claiming the police violated New Jersey’s “Subpoena First Act” – a law that limits the ability to obtain search warrants for materials gathered in the course of newsgathering. The New Jersey statute is very similar to the federal Privacy Protection Act. Both are designed to limit searches and seizures of material from “newsrooms.” The idea is that if law enforcement needs to obtain news gathering materials, it should subpoena those materials rather than using a search warrant. The subpoena, which typically calls for the production at a later date, gives the recipient time to object to producing the materials.
Anyone who has ever watched “Law and Order” however, knows that the police show you the search warrant and immediately commence the search – allowing no time for legal challenges.
But Oettinger faced two challenges in asserting the law here. First, when the cops showed up, he never said that he was protected by it. All he said was that he had a lot of Web sites. While Oettinger argued this put the police on notice that the law applied to him, it was apparently too subtle a reference to convince the court.
And even had that “notice” been sufficient, the court ruled that Oettinger was not covered by the statute. By its terms, the statute protects persons engaged in the process of “gathering, procuring, transmitting, compiling, editing, publishing, or disseminating news for the public.” But Oettinger’s site was not set up to disseminate news to the public. In Oettinger’s own words he designed it for “kindred spirits” to “come together to heal and to learn how to enjoy life after escaping from Amy Wollock.” So, whatever a sort of weird newsletter for a support group of bitter students may be, it is not “news for the public.”
The court’s decision fortunately recognizes that the New Jersey Act (and others like it) probably has broader application beyond the “traditional” media. But it still has limits. Just one more thing for Oettinger to gripe about.