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A reporter who breaks a promise to a news source may be violating a moral commitment, but isn’t breaching a contract under D.C. or Virginia law, a federal judge held on Sept. 6. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly used that reasoning to dismiss a suit brought by Julie Hiatt Steele, a minor figure in the Clinton impeachment scandal. Steele was a friend of Kathleen Willey, the White House volunteer who alleged that President Clinton made a sexual advance to her in 1993. Willey asked Steele to speak with Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff in 1997 to corroborate Willey’s story. Steele says Isikoff assured her that their discussions would be off the record and that her name would not be printed. In talking to Isikoff, Steele first supported Willey’s version, then recanted. (These events also led to Steele’s indictment on false statement and obstruction of justice charges. Her criminal case ended in a mistrial in 1999.) After Newsweek printed her name, Steele, who lived in Richmond, Va., sued Isikoff and the magazine, alleging that she suffered damage to her reputation and to her job prospects. In responding to a motion to dismiss the 1998 complaint, Kollar-Kotelly refused to knock the case out on constitutional grounds. A 1991 Supreme Court case, Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., permits sources to pursue lawsuits against the media despite the First Amendment, as long as they claim some damages other than to their reputation , and their case is based on a generally applicable legal principle. However, the judge, applying D.C. and Virginia law, rejected all of Steele’s claims individually. Even if Isikoff reneged on an understanding with Steele — an assumption that the court took as true for the purpose of the motion — he did not breach a contract with her. And the theory in Cohen, known as “promissory estoppel,” did not hold sway here because Virginia law governs the case, Kollar-Kotelly found. Virginia doesn’t recognize this doctrine, which gives a person the right to sue if he can show that he relied on someone else’s promise to his detriment. “This is an excellent analysis of why Cohen has to be read in a confined way, and of the way you should look at the informal — and in this town often duplicitous — relations between sources and reporters,” says media lawyer Bruce Sanford of Baker & Hostetler, who was not involved in the case. “This is simply not a contract.” John Coale of D.C.’s Coale, Cooley, Lietz, McInerny & Broadus, who represents Steele, says he is considering an appeal to the D.C. Circuit.

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