NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON · Confidentiality/Privilege · Feb. 21, 2007
House passes shield law bill
Feb. 21, 2007 · Washington state’s House of Representatives voted 96-0, with two lawmakers excused, on Friday in favor of a state shield law that would prevent journalists who refuse to reveal confidential sources from facing jail time.
The bill grants journalists an absolute privilege to withhold the identities of confidential sources, which is the same privilege extended to attorneys, spouses, police offices, and clergy. The bill will now head to the Senate.
Although Washington currently has no shield law, the courts have traditionally used the First Amendment and common law to extend a qualified privilege to journalists.
Under the proposed bill, the media can still be forced to release unpublished notes and tapes in both criminal and civil cases when a judge deems it necessary and the information cannot be obtained from other sources.
A similar shield bill passed the Washington state House last year by an 87-11 vote, but never made it to the Senate floor.
Among the opponents of last year’s proposal was the United Services Automobile Association, which hired a well-connected lobbyist to fight the legislation.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ western Washington chapter also opposed last year’s bill, insisting the legislation should extend an absolute privilege to work product and sources. But the organization is now supporting the shield law.
“Although we would have liked even stronger protection for reporter work product (notes, outtakes, unpublished photographs) and the idea of the government defining the news media gives us pause, providing absolute protection for confidential sources is a worthy goal and one that SPJ fully supports,” the western Washington board said in a public statement.
Utah, Missouri, Massachusetts, and Texas are also considering state shield laws this year, while 32 other states and the District of Columbia already have such laws in place.
(H.B. 1366) — MA