Born and raised on St. Paul's East Side, Wally Wakefield graduated from high school in 1948, worked on the Great Northern Railroad for a decade, and spent a year fighting in the Korean War before attending the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill. He was an elementary-school teacher for 29 years, and after raising five kids and retiring, he decided it would be fun to work part-time for a community newspaper, writing human-interest stories and tallying high school sports scores.
Mark Anfinson has been practicing law for 20 years, and in that time he has made a million motions, filed countless briefs, and tried dozens of libel cases for clients such as the Minnesota Newspaper Association and City Pages. He has a brain crammed with legal minutiae and spends most of his time trying to squeeze every last inch out of the First Amendment.
At first glance, these two men from different generations and with divergent professional passions seem poles apart. And yet Anfinson says that one of the most memorable moments of his career came just a few minutes after 2:00 p.m. on Friday, November 3, when he looked up from his legal pad to watch his 71-year-old client address Ramsey County District Court Judge Dale Lindman.
Lindman asked Wakefield if he planned to comply with a court order requiring him to name anonymous sources quoted in a 1997 investigative story published in the Maplewood Review about a former high school football coach named Richard Weinberger. If the answer was yes, Wakefield could go home and Weinberger could go forward with a defamation suit against his school district and four of its employees. If the answer was no, Wakefield would be held in contempt of court and fined $200 a day. The answer was no.
"When Wally came in front of the judge, I was gripped by the notion that this was one of the exceptional moments of my legal career," Anfinson says. "I was watching a courageous act by an improbable character. I'll remember it when I'm sitting on the rocking chair on the porch at the rest home."
Not everyone in the courtroom--or in the local journalism community, as it turns out--is so moved. Some Twin Cities reporters say there is a lot of room for gray in what, at face value, might seem like a black and white issue: whether or not reporters should ever be compelled to reveal their sources. And what Anfinson sees as a righteous fight for the First Amendment, Stephen Cooper--Weinberger's attorney and the former head of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights--sees as grandstanding.
"Procedurally they know they're wrong and legally they know they're wrong," Cooper argues. "Mark is very skilled at making up arguments and blowing things out of proportion."
"I think there is a real confusion here on the plaintiff's part," Anfinson retorts. "I don't think they understand what the law requires."
That the two attorneys have been going at each other like this for years would be less startling if Wakefield were actually a defendant in Cooper's case. But neither Wakefield, nor his newspaper, nor its corporate owner are named in Weinberger v. Independent School District 622 (North St. Paul Area Schools), a fact that both Anfinson and Cooper say is key, for entirely different reasons.
The saga began on January 27, 1997, when the Maplewood Review, a weekly owned by Lillie Suburban Newspapers, Inc., published a front-page story reporting that Weinberger, an earth sciences teacher, would no longer be employed as the head football coach at Tartan High School in the St. Paul suburb of Oakdale. The article was written by Jason Tarasek, but contained a number of anonymous quotes gathered by Wakefield. According to court records, the piece asserted that school officials had decided not to renew Weinberger's contract for an 11th year because they'd had enough of his "temper, inappropriate comments, and foul language," which people claimed he uses to intimidate parents, teachers, and players.
In October 1998, Weinberger filed suit against District 622 and employees Barbara Halbrehder, Tim Hickey, Cletus Lipetzky, and Mark Klingsporn, alleging breach of contract and defamation, and arguing that the defendants used the Maplewood Review to spread false rumors about the coach. Judge Lindman rejected the defendants' request to dismiss the case and in July 2000, Cooper served a subpoena on Wakefield. (A subpoena was also prepared for Tarasek, whose byline appears on the piece, but he had since moved to California and was never served.) Anfinson objected on the grounds that the subpoena violated both the First Amendment and the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act, which in most cases shields journalists from having to reveal confidential sources. Cooper filed another motion arguing that the defendants were undoubtedly the primary sources in Wakefield's article. At that point, the judge concluded that it was reasonable to ask Wakefield to tell the court which defendants said what.
Anfinson took his objections to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He acknowledged that there is a "defamation exception" in the law that compels a journalist to reveal his sources when it can be shown that the information is relevant and cannot be obtained through other means, but only when a journalist or news organization is a direct defendant in the case. Otherwise, attorneys without enough evidence to name a news organization in a lawsuit could still use reporters and their notes as a way to go on a fishing expedition for damning evidence--an interpretation that Anfinson argues is dangerously broad.