Attorneys for the Beaver Countian filed new documents with the court this week in defense of 6 commenters who are being targeted by Treasurer Connie Javens and her adult daughter Renee Javens Zuk. The two women are seeking to expose the real identities of commenters who left critical remarks about them on the Beaver Countian website using anonymous pseudonyms; the women filed a lawsuit back in May seeking financial compensation against the “John Doe” defendants for allegedly tarnishing their reputations.
Treasurer Connie Javens has claimed in sworn court documents that she has suffered “mental anguish, sleepless nights and humiliation” because of the comments; her adult daughter has alleged she is currently under a doctor’s care because stress from the comments is causing her to lose her hair.
Connie Javens has been under criminal investigation by the District Attorney’s Office for the past year after it was revealed she unilaterally made millions of dollars in payments to the new private owners of Friendship Ridge, in what District Attorney David Lozier has called a violation of Pennsylvania County Code. Renee Zuk garnered a private contract with the facility as the payments were being made by her mother — Javens’ son and her other son’s wife also enjoy separate contracts with the company. A forensic audit conducted on behalf of the Board of Commissioners, which Treasurer Javens refused to cooperate with, shows the new owners of Friendship Ridge now owe county taxpayers approximately $1.3 million from the sale of the facility.
Although this publication is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, Beaver Countian founder John Paul refused to comply with a subpoena issued against him by Javens and Zuk seeking information that could identify the anonymous commenters. John Paul has vowed he will not surrender the identifying information to Treasurer Connie Javens or her daughter.
The Beaver Countian is being represented in the matter by Philadelphia attorneys Brian Collins and Mark Gottlieb with the law firm of Offit Kurman. The legal representation was arranged for by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the world’s leading digital civil rights organization.
John Paul had previously invoked the Pennsylvania Journalist Shield Law in a motion to quash the subpoena issued against him by Javens and Zuk. According to the Beaver Countian’s attorneys, it marked the first time in the state of Pennsylvania that a new media journalist has invoked the Shield in any manner, and the first time any reporter in Pennsylvania has invoked the Shield to protect anonymous commenters.
In their newest filing presented to the court on Wednesday, attorneys for the Beaver Countian argue that the Journalist Shield Law prevents the court from compelling John Paul to disclose the confidential information.
“At a hearing in this matter, the Beaver Countian provided testimony and exhibits demonstrating the types of investigative reporting on its website, its wide circulation, the awards it has won for journalistic excellence, and the credentialing it receives for significant news events such as the recent presidential election,” wrote attorney Collins to the court. “The Plaintiffs did not, and have not, contested this assertion beyond baldly stating that as an online news source the statute does not apply to the Beaver Countian. The evidence presented at the hearing, along with the relevant legal authority interpreting the privilege, contradicts that assertion. Thus, the Beaver Countian qualifies for protection.”
Attorney Brian Collins went on to inform the court about the important role anonymous commenters have played in the Beaver Countian’s investigative reporting into governmental corruption.
“Pennsylvania has not yet decided whether the Shield Law should apply to prohibit the compelled disclosure of anonymous commenters’ identity through a journalist/news site, meaning the courts have not yet resolved whether anonymous commenters count as ‘sources’. Six other states, however, have ruled that their Shield Law does apply in analogous situations — to anonymous online commenters on a news site […]
“Given the above results in sister courts, and the generally robust character of Pennsylvania’s Shield Law, Pennsylvania courts should extend the protection of sources to these anonymous commenters. First, the comments communicate information to a news organization, the Beaver Countian. Second, the identity of the commenters is a confidential communication that the commenters expect and intend to remain confidential. Third, these commenters provide information to the Beaver Countian, which the Beaver Countian sometimes follows with further confidential interviews, and these interviews have led in the past to newsworthy, fact verified stories. For example, the Beaver Countian has used the following comment from John Q. Taxpayer as the basis for potential stories in the Beaver Countian:
2016/02/22 at 11:54 am
John Q Taxpayer
Renee E Javens is listed as an Owner with J Renee’s Styling Salon in Pennsylvania. The address on file for this person is 1280 Center Rd, Monaca, PA 15061 in Beaver County.
The company is a Pennsylvania Domestic Fictitious Name, which was filed on March 17, 2014. The filing status is listed as Active. The address on file for this company is 1280 Center Rd, Monaca, PA 15061 in Beaver County.
FILED AND ESTABLISHED MARCH 17, 2014
Is the date a coincidence or was this company created for the sole purpose of obtaining a contract with Friendship Ridge? This fucking story keeps getting more crooked by the minute.
“By requiring the Beaver Countian to divulge identifying information about these commenters, the Court will order the release of information that can identify confidential sources to a news gathering organization. Therefore, these commenters expect and rely on the confidential nature of their communication (by publishing on the site information but keeping their identity confidential to the Beaver Countian in the event of follow up) as a way to bring political corruption to light and to inform the Beaver Countian of potential developments in the community.”
The Beaver Countian’s full brief in support of the Journalist Shield Law protecting the anonymous commenters’ identities from Treasurer Connie Javens and her adult daughter Renee Javens Zuk can be read here (the Plaintiff’s supplemental brief can be read in full here).
It is not yet known if the court will order a second hearing in the motions to quash the subpoena, or if the court will rule on the briefs, testimony, and arguments already before it.
About The Beaver Countian’s Legal Representation
Founded in the 1980’s in Baltimore, Offit Kurman is now one of the fastest-growing full-service law firms in the region. The group has a keen understanding of the importance of the intersection of law and technology, having recently expanded their attorneys with technology focused practices including intellectual property, data and cybersecurity, and privacy issues. With 120 attorneys on staff, the firm offers a comprehensive range of services in virtually every legal category. Offit Kurman’s twelve offices serve individual and corporate clients in the Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, and New York City metropolitan areas, and markets including Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Northern Virginia.
Legal representation for the Beaver Countian was arranged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the world’s leading digital civil rights organization. The EFF was founded in 1990 to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows. The international nonprofit organization champions causes of user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. The EFF has lead litigation against the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program in conjunction with efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A staff member for the organization served as the “digital bodyguard” for Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, helping to secure source material provided to the reporter by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.