Gov. Linda Lingle signed Hawaii’s shield bill into law last week, providing new legal protection to journalists asked to disclose their sources and newsgathering materials in state courts.
Both houses of the state Legislature unanimously passed the law in late April, just before heading into summer recess. Hawaii became the 36th state to offer a shield for journalists.
The law offers an absolute privilege protecting both the identity of sources and the content of newsgathering materials in most situations.
In felony prosecutions and civil defamation actions, though, the measure will offer only a qualified privilege for journalists. In those circumstances the privilege would not apply if the information is otherwise unavailable, "noncumulative" — i.e., not merely repetitive — and necessary to the charge, claim or defense asserted.
In other situations, such as when a journalist either commits or witnesses a crime, the shield will not apply at all.
As for who is covered, the law applies automatically to any individual who is currently or has previously been employed by a newspaper, magazine, or radio or television station.
Non-traditional journalists, such as bloggers, may also fall within the bounds of the shield’s protections if they regularly report information of public interest and maintain similar interests as professional journalists in protecting their sources and newsgathering materials.
Reporters in the Aloha State have been without any protection from judicial, legislative or administrative subpoenas for more than four decades. In 1961, the state Supreme Court ruled that reporters had no First Amendment or state right to refuse to disclose sources of information.
The new law will automatically be repealed after three years, giving legislators an opportunity to review its use.