Applying traditional First Amendment protections to the exploding universe of online journalism, a state appeals court on Friday rejected Apple Computer's bid to unearth the identities of individuals who leaked inside information on a new company product to bloggers.
In a 69-page ruling, the San Jose-based 6th District Court of Appeal broke new ground by concluding that bloggers and Web masters enjoy the same protections against divulging confidential sources as established media organizations. Civil liberties groups and journalism organizations have argued that online journalists need to protect the confidentiality of sources just as much as traditional media, such as the New York Times and CNN.
Journalists covet the ability to protect the identity of sources as a key to gathering news. The appeals court's firm endorsement of journalistic shields for online media sets up what could be a crucial First Amendment showdown in the California Supreme Court if Apple continues to press its case.
Apple triggered the closely watched case two years ago when the company went to court to pry loose the identities of individuals who leaked internal company documents on a new product called ``Asteroid'' to three Web pages devoted to Apple-related news. Among other things, the plans for Asteroid, including an exact drawing of the yet-to-be released digital music device, were posted on a Web site called PowerPage, operated by Pennsylvania blogger Jason O'Grady.
Apple has argued that it is entitled to the identities of the bloggers' sources in order to protect its trade secrets and punish anybody who stole and distributed them. A Santa Clara County judge sided with Apple last year, but the appeals court overturned that decision Friday.
The 6th District, in a unanimous three-justice ruling, rejected Apple's argument that bloggers are not covered by California and federal laws protecting the confidentiality of journalists' sources and should not be afforded the same protections as traditional news organizations.
``We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes `legitimate journalism,' '' Justice Conrad Rushing wrote for the court. ``The shield law is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news, and that is what petitioners did here. We can think of no workable test or principle that would distinguish `legitimate' from `illegitimate' news.''
``Any attempt by the courts to draw such a distinction would imperil a fundamental purpose of the First Amendment,'' the justices added.
Apple lawyers referred questions to company spokesman Steve Dowling, who did not return phone calls seeking comment. Apple has repeatedly described the case as an important test of a company's ability to protect its trade secrets.
Civil liberties groups and other online media advocates lauded the court decision, saying it marked a legal breakthrough for the eclectic blend of new media operators devoted solely to the Web. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented O'Grady in the case, called the ruling a ``huge win'' for online journalists.
Various legal blogs also supported the decision. Eugene Volokh, a University of California-Los Angeles law professor who runs a popular law blog, said the court ``got this absolutely right.''
``This means that if a journalist receives information from a source, it doesn't matter if they publish that on a Web site or in a newspaper or they are talking about it on the radio,'' added Lauren Gelman, assistant director of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.
Apple was backed in the case by a coalition of high-tech companies that warned there is no journalistic privilege when it comes to concealing corporate theft. And Apple, which investigated several dozen employees for the leak, has contended that the case is about theft, not the First Amendment.
Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg, who ruled in Apple's favor last year, agreed with that position, concluding that Apple had a right to find out who stole and leaked the information on Asteroid, a device designed to work with Apple's GarageBand music software.
The appeals court, however, found that Apple failed to thoroughly pursue other options before going after the bloggers' sources. The 6th District also ruled that a 20-year-old federal law designed to protect the privacy of electronic communications prohibits Apple from going through Internet service providers to obtain the bloggers' sources.
The appeals court also refused to accept Apple's argument that information related to the Asteroid product was not newsworthy and should not fall under the scope of laws protecting a journalist's confidential sources.