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South Carolina political blogger does not need to reveal anonymous sources, judge rules

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Will Folks contempt hearing (copy)

Columbia-area blogger Will Folks answers questions during a hearing in Lexington where attorneys for former Rep. Kenny Bingham seek to hold him in contempt of court. Maya T. Prabhu/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina political blogger Will Folks will not need to reveal his anonymous sources as part of a defamation case against him, a judge ruled Monday.

But Circuit Judge William Keesley added that the Columbia-area blogger will not be able to use those confidential sources as part of his defense that he did not act with malice or reckless disregard for the truth.

Folks is being sued by former Cayce Republican state Rep. Kenny Bingham, who alleges that Folks defamed him in a series of articles on his website, fitsnews.com, in 2014 and 2015. The articles were about a possible ethics investigation and Statehouse corruption probe.

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican representing Folks in the case, said he considered the Lexington County order to be a "complete victory" for Folks' First Amendment rights.

"The best we could have hoped for here is what we got, which was not being compelled to reveal the source," Davis said.

Folks said the ruling "bodes well for all of us in the news-gathering business," and he added that he plans to continue to defend himself against the broader defamation claim.

"With all due respect, I respect (Bingham's) right to press the issue. Certainly that's his prerogative," Folks said. "But for a public figure to bring a case like this is just ludicrous."

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The order may also set a significant precedent in South Carolina. This ruling represents the first time a judge in the state has found that a journalist being sued for defamation does not need to reveal anonymous sources as part of discovery, Davis said.

"The judge really carved out here a qualified privilege for journalists, which I think is very important," he said.

Folks will now have to disprove the defamation claim using other evidence. But Davis said he has no concern he will be able to do that, arguing he has plenty of other forms of evidence to clear Folks in the case.

Bingham's attorney, John Parker, said his client maintains that the claims Folks made are untrue, and he will continue to pursue the case against him. Parker said he and Bingham never intended to force Folks to go to jail — they just wanted him to comply with a previous judge's order to reveal the sources.

As to whether the case has prompted him to reconsider his aggressive reporting, Folks said he had thought about it, describing himself as a "loose cannon," a "flame-thrower," and "less than genteel at times."

"But I've always told the truth as I know it and believe it to be," Folks said, reiterating what he had said in court under oath. "And I certainly have always viewed the contract between a journalist and their sources to be absolutely inviolable."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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