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Hawaii lawmakers committee pass draft of bill that weakens state reporter shield law

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
A panel of Hawaii lawmakers on Thursday approved a draft that severely limits the soon-expiring state reporter shield law. The…

A panel of Hawaii lawmakers on Thursday approved a draft that severely limits the soon-expiring state reporter shield law.

The most current version of the bill — seen as a compromise between House and Senate versions — removes protections for free newspapers, expands the circumstances under which law enforcement authorities can subpoena journalists’ notes and excludes protections for bloggers.

University of Hawaii journalism professor Gerald Kato said that while the committee’s latest draft offers some protections for journalists, the law as a whole does not take into account the evolving nature of the profession. Kato is a member of a local media coalition pushing to adopt a permanent version of the current law.

“Maybe when I was a newspaper reporter 30 years ago this might have been a good idea, but that’s the whole problem with this bill,” he said. “It doesn’t deal with 21st century realities. Sure there are elements of the law that are appealing, but the tradeoffs mean we will get a law that will drag us back in terms of the protections offered to journalists.”

House Bill 622 was originally drafted to remove the law’s June 30 expiration date. The state’s current shield law completely protects both the identity of sources and the content of newsgathering in most situations. The law applies both to journalists working in traditional media such as newspapers and broadcast outlets, as well as non-traditional reporters such as bloggers reporting on information of public interest.

The bill now goes to the House and Senate for a vote.

Jeff Portnoy, a prominent First Amendment attorney who represents the media coalition pushing for a shield law as strong as the current one, wrote a letter to lawmakers urging them to let the shield law die rather than passing the most recent draft.

The state attorney general’s office argued in written testimony submitted to the state legislature that the current reporter shield law was “overly broad.” Members of the media coalition testified on the bill over the past several weeks as it worked its way through committees in the House and Senate, calling on lawmakers to simply make the current shield law permanent.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also sent a letter last week to lawmakers urging the state legislature to pass the original version of the bill which simply removes the sunset provision from the current state shield law.

Since its first enactment in 2008, the shield law’s protections were exercised just once in 2009 when Kauai Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Watanabe granted a documentary filmmaker’s request to keep his unpublished footage and sources confidential.