Take care in protecting reporters from revealing sources
A state House committee has approved a bill that would shield online and traditional journalists from revealing their sources.
Ideally, the First Amendment should protect journalists from revealing their sources of information. Courts have ruled otherwise, and recent cases have resulted in the jailing or fining of reporters. Legislators are finding difficulty in writing laws to deal with the problem and need to take care in defining a journalist and making exceptions to the protection.
A reporter would be stripped of the shield under a bill endorsed by the state House Judiciary Committee only if committing, about to commit or having committed a crime. Attorney General Mark Bennett and city Prosecutor Peter Carlisle understandably are concerned about the potential compromise of public safety and security.
In contrast, a bill approved by the U.S. House in October and supported by media organizations includes four exceptions. They relate to preventing acts of terrorism; preventing imminent death or significant bodily harm; certain trade secrets, health information or financial information; and classified information that will cause significant harm.
A bill pending in the U.S. Senate would compel a journalist to reveal a source in a civil lawsuit if "the testimony or document sought is essential to the resolution of the matter." For example, it could be required only if the information can be obtained in other ways.
Either version of the media-shield bills in Congress would protect USA Today reporter Toni Locy, who "faces possible financial ruin" from fines for failing to cooperate in former Army scientist Steve J. Hatfill's Privacy Act suit against the government, according to Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The state House bill would shield anyone who disseminates news of "substantial public interest," including Internet bloggers who have worked or are working in the media. House staffer Douglas White, who writes a blog at poinography.com, which generates no revenue, and who has never worked in the media, complained that his sources would not be protected.
White has a valid point. Aaron Barlow, author of "The Rise of the Blogosphere," calls Ben Franklin "the patron saint of the blogs," and semi-retired New York Times columnist William Safire told a congressional committee that he thinks "the lonely pamphleteer has the same rights" as the Times. However, Safire added that while protection of sources should be regarded as an essential First Amendment element, it should be limited to people who are "in the business of gathering news."
Enactment of any media shield law has the potential danger of opening a Pandora's box of future legislation. Such a law adding reporter-source communication to existing attorney-client and doctor-patient confidentialities could logically but absurdly lead to the government's licensing of journalists, even bloggers who desire and qualify for source-protection. Any media-shield legislation must be crafted with great care to avoid such a worst-case scenario.