Texas governor signs shield bill

Samantha Fredrickson | Reporter's Privilege | Feature | May 14, 2009

Texas has become the 37th state to enact a reporter’s shield law.

Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 670 on Wednesday, bringing a reporter's privilege to the state just weeks after it was approved unanimously by both the Senate and the House. It is effective immediately.

The bill provides a qualified privilege for journalists in both civil and criminal cases. A reporter is privileged from testifying in a civil case unless the subpoenaing party shows that the material cannot be obtained from alternative sources; that the subpoena is not overbroad or unreasonable; that timely notice was given to the journalist; that the interest of the subpoenaing party “outweighs the public interest in gathering and dissemination of news”; that the subpoena is not being served to obtain peripheral or speculative information; and that the information sought is relevant and material to the underlying claim.

In criminal cases, there are exceptions for when the subpoena seeks information about a grand jury leak or a confidential source in a criminal case in which the reporter witnessed the source committing a felony. Also, the privilege would not apply if a source admitted committing a felony to a journalist, or if there is probable cause to believe the source did commit such a crime. Finally, the privilege would not hold up if a reporter's testimony is necessary to prevent “reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.”

The bill’s definition of a “journalist” requires that the person write “for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain.” Though this encompasses a journalist using any medium, including the Internet, it rules out many bloggers who do not receive income from their work.

“This was a complex issue that required thoughtful consideration, and I am pleased that lawmakers were able to strike a balance between protecting the rights of the people and the press,” Perry said in a statement issued by his office.

A shield law has been proposed during the past three legislative sessions in Texas. But Laura Prather, a media lawyer in Texas who has been at the forefront of pushing for the law, said it finally passed this year because of the bill’s broad, bipartisan appeal and its support from non-journalists, such as attorneys and even a former state Supreme Court justice.

"We needed people to understand that this is not a media bill," she said. "This is a citizenry bill."