NEWS BRIEF After the Boston Marathon bombing, Glenn Beck, the conservative radio host, said his producer received a tip. Two officials from the Department of Homeland security, Beck said, told the producer a Saudi man seen in a video at the scene financed the 2013 bombings.
But that man, Abdulrahman Alharbi, was cleared in congressional testimony of any role in the attacks by Janet Napolitano, who was Homeland Security secretary at the time. Despite that, Beck repeatedly insisted otherwise. Alharbi sued Beck and TheBlaze radio network, which Beck owns, for defamation. This week, a federal judge ruled Beck must reveal the sources who allegedly provided the information Alharbi was the “money man” behind the attacks.
The case has set up a fight over First Amendment rights, and the ethical obligations of the media when dealing with private figures.
Judge Patti Saris, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, released her 61-page decision Tuesday, in which she said all other means to learn if Homeland Security did indeed consider Alharbi a suspect had been exhausted. A freedom-of-information-records request turned up no evidence linking Alharbi to the attacks, so she requested Beck turn over his sources.
What will happen next is uncertain, as Politico reported:
It's unclear whether Beck plans to comply with the disclosure order, which is directed to the defendants in the case: Beck, his companies TheBlaze Inc. and Mercury Radio Arts, as well as radio distributor Premiere Radio Networks. If they defy the order, the judge could impose sanctions, which could hurt their defense in the suit. She could also assess fines, or potentially even jail Beck for contempt.
Beck and his legal team had argued Alharbi was a public figure because he gave interviews to the media on the matter. But Saris ruled against that notion, saying if Alharbi was indeed a public figure, he was a “limited-purpose figure,” or an involuntary one. That means Alharbi must only prove Beck and his broadcasting network were negligent in reporting that he financed the bombing. Had he been declared a public figure, Alharbi would have had to prove Beck and his producer deliberately broadcast a falsehood, or intentionally acted with reckless disregard.
Typically, U.S. shield laws protect reporters from revealing their sources. Most states have these, but Massachusetts does not.
Alharbi, a student, was a spectator at the marathon, and was even injured in the blasts. Homeland Security did place him on a terrorist watch list, according to Politico, but Napolitano said they “quickly determined he had nothing to do with the bombing [and] the watch listing status was removed.”
So far, Saris has seemed unimpressed with the testimony Beck and one of his top administrators, Joe Weasel, have offered. In her report, she criticized them for allegedly taking notes of their conversation with the unnamed security source on post-it notes, then throwing the notes away. She wrote:
When asked what the confidential sources told the defendants about the plaintiff’s role in financing the attacks, Weasel could not recall specifically what the confidential sources told him about the nature of the plaintiff’s involvement. There are no notes to confirm the information.