The Free Press will not have to hand over a reporter’s notes taken during a mid-standoff interview with Jeffrey Skjervold, the appeals court ruled Monday.

The appeals court reversed the decision by Blue Earth County Judge Norb Smith, who ruled in February that authorities had a legal right to unpublished information obtained by the reporter who interviewed Skjervold, who shot two police officers and later killed himself in a Dec. 23, 2006 standoff.

For now the ruling means the case is over and The Free Press has prevailed. But authorities could appeal. They have 30 days to file an appeal to the Supreme Court but, even if they do, the Supreme Court may not take the case. The vast majority of all cases appealed to the high court and rejected.

Free Press attorney Mark Anfinson said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

“The surprise in this case came when Judge Smith ruled against us,” Anfinson said. “The county attorney’s factual case just wasn’t there and Judge Smith refused to see that.”

Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Smith had ruled that authorities satisfied all requirements necessary to subvert the shield law that protects media from having to divulge unpublished information.

But the appeals court said Smith erred by ruling that authorities had satisfied the last of the three criteria: “That there is a compelling and overriding interest requiring the disclosure of the information where the disclosure is necessary to prevent an injustice.”

Said the court’s opinion, “... the county attorney does not argue that it needs the information for any official purpose, such as investigating potential charges against appellants or a law enforcement officer.

“Essentially, the county attorney argues that it needs to conduct discovery to find an injustice, but declines to connect the discovery to a particular injustice. We conclude that the statute requires that the particular injustice be identified.”

Free Press Publisher Jim Santori called the ruling “a great Christmas present.”

“Of course, we are pleased with the decision and the upholding of state law intended to protect free flow of information,” Santori said.

The ruling represents a stark contrast to Smith’s initial ruling on the case.

In his ruling Smith said, “Freedom of the press is not quite as sacrosanct or absolute as The Free Press would like it to be ...”

He’d also said, “It is safe to infer that the call exacerbated Skjervold’s mental state which in turn contributed to his taking his own life,” and, “judges must maintain justice and do what is right under the law. It is both just and right to compel The Free Press and its reporters to divulge all information ...”

The appeals court ruling, however, said authorities had met the first two criteria in the law — that information sought was relevant to a potential felony or gross misdemeanor offense, and that the information couldn’t be obtained by any other means. But there are three criteria. Without meeting all three, the privilege must not be sacrificed.

“Parties seeking to subpoena reporters really do have to clearly prove all three elements of the statute,” Anfinson said. “They don’t get to take short cuts.”

“We have argued all along that prosecuting our reporters was unjustified and unwarranted,” said Santori. “It was a long battle but it was worth it not just for us but for other news outlets in the state.”

Anfinson said that only a handful of cases exist that deal with the state’s Free Flow of Information Act. Because of that, each of them have a major impact on how the law is dealt with state wide.

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