U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

CNN ordered to produce source communications in defamation lawsuit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 19, 2020

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
May 19, 2020

The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Florida upheld a trial court’s May 2020 decision ordering CNN to produce emails and text messages with a source for a 2015 investigation.

The network’s investigative report focused on the pediatric heart surgery program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. The report said that infants who underwent open heart surgery at St. Mary's had a mortality rate three times higher than the national average.

After the story ran, Dr. Michael Black, head of the hospital’s heart surgery unit, filed a lawsuit in 2016, alleging he had been defamed and asserting that “the preconceived goal of the June 1, 2015 article and video report was to manufacture an outrageous, headline-grabbing story.”

The lawsuit named six defendants, including CNN lead reporter Elizabeth Cohen; anchor Anderson Cooper; producer John Bonifield and employee Dana Ford; as well as Kelly Robinson, who was the key source for the CNN stories and “was motivated to defame respondent because of her association with another children’s hospital and surgeon,” the lawsuit charged.

During the discovery phase of the trial, plaintiff Black learned that a substantial amount of communication occurred between Robinson and the CNN defendants. The plaintiff sought the communications from Robinson, but she testified that she had deleted the emails and text messages in order to keep them confidential. Subsequently, Black sought the same communications from the CNN defendants.

CNN argued that the correspondence was shielded by Florida laws that reporters are not required to reveal the identity of sources, according to The Palm Beach Post.

But in May 2020 a trial court ruled that exceptions in the shield law applied in this case. It ordered CNN to turn over its communications with Robinson and noted that it “found a compelling interest for disclosure because of the unique circumstances of the case: 1) the need for the defamation plaintiff to prove malice; 2) the centrality of Robinson’s role as a source of CNN’s reporting; and 3) the fact that Robinson, a co-defendant, deleted her own copies of the communications and was not protected by journalist privilege.”

That decision was upheld on Oct. 7, by the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which ruled that “while the journalist privilege must be protected, it is a qualified privilege.”

Neither CNN’s lawyers nor Black’s counsel responded to a request from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker for updated information or comment on the case.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].