SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ A judge on Friday ordered three independent online reporters to divulge confidential sources in a lawsuit brought by Apple Computer Inc., narrowly interpreting who is a journalist and thereby entitled to First Amendment protections.
The reporters allegedly published product descriptions that Apple said employees had leaked in violation of nondisclosure agreements and possibly the U.S. Trade Secrets Act.
The ruling concerned free speech advocates, who insisted that the people who write for Apple enthusiast sites should enjoy the same legal protections as reporters for mainstream publications. Among those are protections afforded under California's ``shield'' law, which is meant to encourage the publication of information in the public's interest.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg disagreed, ruling that no one has the right to publish information that could have been provided only by someone breaking the law.
``The rumor and opinion mills may continue to run at full speed,'' Kleinberg wrote in the 13-page ruling. ``What underlies this decision is the publishing of information that at this early stage of the litigation fits squarely within the definition of trade secret.
``The right to keep and maintain proprietary information as such is a right which the California Legislature and courts have long affirmed and which is essential to the future of technology and innovation generally.''
In December, Apple sued several unnamed individuals, called ``Does,'' who leaked specifications about a pending music software _ code-named ``Asteroid'' _ to Monish Bhatia, Jason O'Grady and another person who writes under the pseudonym Kasper Jade. Their articles appeared in the online publications Apple Insider and PowerPage.
Apple demanded that Bhatia, O'Grady and Jade divulge their sources. The reporters refused to cooperate, saying that identifying their sources would create a ``chilling effect'' that could erode the media's ability to report in the public's interest.
The journalists said Apple is trying to curtail their First Amendment rights because they lack the legal and financial resources that mainstream publications have to fight such information requests. Other trade publications wrote about the music technology after the reporters broke the story online.
Apple Insider and PowerPage have hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors and generate revenue through advertisements, but they are a fraction of the size of more established publications covering the computer industry.