Wisconsin governor signs shield law for reporters

Cristina Abello | Reporter's Privilege | Feature | May 19, 2010

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law a reporter's shield bill protecting confidential sources and newsgathering materials.

Wisconsin's Whistleblower Protection Act, the 39th such law in the nation, provides journalists with an absolute privilege to withhold the identity of confidential sources and a qualified privilege to protect from disclosure unpublished newsgathering information.

Under the statute, a “news person” is someone who gathers and disseminates news to the public through any medium, including print publications, books, news agencies or wire services, broadcast, cable, satellite, or electronic services.

Though the recent Kansas shield law specifically included online journalists, Wisconsin's definition is inclusive enough that reporters who publish only online would likely fall under the statute.

Disclosure of unpublished newsgathering materials may only be compelled in a criminal case if the court finds, after it notifies the reporter and gives them the opportunity to be heard, that the requester proved by clear and convincing evidence that a crime has occurred. 

In a civil case, the requester must prove the information sought is highly relevant, is necessary, and is not obtainable from any alternative source, and that disclosure is in the overriding public interest.

Interestingly, the bill also has a section that restricts the issuance of a subpoena to a nonreporter if the intent is to obtain information relating to a transaction with a news person that would be barred from disclosure under the statute. This unusual provision offers an additional layer of protection to the newsgathering process.

Wisconsin is the second state since last month to pass shield legislation. Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson signed the state's bill into law April 15.