3 Questions with... Mark Anfinson, private attorney
Editor’s note: Students in ThreeSixty Journalism’s Rookie Journalist Camp in July spent time writing a Q-and-A story about guest speakers who visited camp. Check ThreeSixtyJournalism.org for more of these profiles, as well as student blogs.
As a Twin Cities private attorney, Mark Anfinson has worked to fight for his clients, who include many news organizations and journalists.
Anfinson specializes in the First Amendment and information law. For many years he has been the counsel to the Minnesota Newspaper Association, the trade association for the state’s newspapers, and also has represented a large range of news organizations and individuals throughout the state.
Anfinson, who for many years has been listed as one of the best lawyers in the country, also teaches communication law at the University of St. Thomas to the youngsters of today and enjoys it.
While talking to ThreeSixty Journalism students about information law, Anfinson gave students an inside look at the laws that can protect or hurt journalists, and the consequences that come with being a journalist. He taught students there are two types of laws, broadly: the one that gives you rights and the one that punishes you. Anfinson also talked about libel, slander and defamation in what he calls the “the Information Age.”
Q: You’re an attorney, but you’re also a teacher. What made you want to also teach students?
Anfinson: That’s really a good question, and there’s not a clear answer. I have always liked teaching. If I had my life to live over again, I would be a teacher. I would never have been an attorney. But when I was young, I hated school, most of the time. In high school, certainly. In college, I hated school. I went to the university and skipped all my classes. There was a semester at the university where I never went to a single class the whole semester. Not once.
… I just was one of those kind of rebellious people, and I know I don’t look like that now, but that’s a long time ago. As the years went by, I realized that teaching was the most noble of all professions. And then 10, 12 years ago, the woman who was the head of the department at St. Thomas, she knew me. She used to have me come in and do guest lectures to her media law class back in the old days, and she eventually said, “You know, Mark, would you be interested in just teaching this class?” … And I jumped at the opportunity. I think this will be my eleventh year, I love it. You might want to ask some of the students what they think. It’s very rewarding to talk, as I’ve said, to young people. They are the future, they are the hope of this society, and I’m very lucky.
Q: Why did you choose to specialize in the First Amendment?
Anfinson: I didn’t. No, that's a trick answer. It chose me. Here's how, I'll tell you quickly, I didn't even choose to become an attorney. When I finished the university, I got drafted into the Vietnam War. So kicking and screaming, I had to go into the army for a few years. I didn’t like it, but when I got out, the army had this wonderful program called the GI Bill. And the GI Bill paid almost all of your college costs for 4 1/2 years. The problem was, I had already finished my college, so I got out and said, “I’ll be damned if I'm going to let this money go to waste.”
But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought well, maybe I want to be a pilot. One day I was at home, and my mom said, “Have you ever thought about being a lawyer? I had never thought about being a lawyer, so lightbulb goes off, I apply and get into law school. That’s how I became a lawyer.
Now, what dad my mom and dad do in my hometown of western Minnesota? They published the local newspaper. My dad was the editor and publisher, my mother was a columnist for four years. They knew people, and when I got out of law school, there were just these lucky connections. The Minnesota Newspaper Association, which represents all of the newspapers in the state, needed a lawyer at some point about four years after I got out of law school. They knew through my dad a little bit about me and they hired me. It choose me, but it’s been a very fortunate thing. …
Q: What was your hardest case, and why?
(Anfinson spoke about a case involving Dick Weinberger, a former Tartan High School football coach who sued the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district for defamation in connection with a newspaper story that told the alleged reasons for Weinberger's firing. The reporter who wrote the story, Wally Wakefield of the Maplewood Review, was ordered by the court to disclose who his confidential sources were in the story. Anfinson represented Lillie Suburban Newspapers, which Wakefield worked for.)
Anfinson: The lawsuit started. Wally was issued a subpoena: “Wally you will appear at the following date in court to tell who your sources were for that story.” ... Wally said, “Your honor, I can’t, I won’t.” They [Lillie Suburban Newspapers] hired me, and I said, “The Shield Law protects Wally.”
Well, to make a very long story short … the Minnesota Supreme Court finally said, “Wally’s gotta tell. This is one of the exceptions.” The other attorney, I’ll never forget this, got up at the Supreme Court for oral arguments ... here’s how he started. It’s brilliant: “Your Honors, this case is about liars hiding behind newspapers.” Even though he was my adversary, it was brilliant, and he won. And the court said, “Wally, you gotta tell.”
Wally came back to Ramsey County District Court, the judge said, “Wally, the Supreme Court says you have to talk. Who were your sources?” Wally said, “Your honor, I respect deeply the court, and I deeply respect you, but I respect even more my promise to my sources.”
It still chokes me up to talk about it. The judge was crying. The judge was crying, he felt so bad he had to do this to Wally. Wally refused. The judge said, “You’re going to pay $250 a day, every day until you tell.” Wally said, “I’ll just have to figure out a way to raise the money.”
We started a national fundraising campaign that journalists throughout the country contributed to. We raised over $25,000, paid all of Wally’s fines. They eventually gave up and revoked the subpoena. … Wally’s wife got cancer during that time, it was just really tough. But, great case. Now you know why it’s tough. I don’t represent the bad people, but I’m so privileged when I get a case [where] I get to represent the good people.
This transcript has been edited for length and content.