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Introduction to the Reporter’s Privilege Compendium

RCFP attorneys authored this introduction, with special thanks to legal intern Britland Kenworthy.

Last updated Nov. 5, 2021

The Reporter’s Privilege Compendium, first posted online in 2002, is the most detailed examination available of the reporter’s privilege — the right not to be compelled to reveal sources or materials in court — in every state and federal circuit. Read up on your state’s policies, or search every state based on one of the outline points or any keyword.

Every state chapter is based on the same standard outline to allow easy comparisons between state laws. The outline starts with the basics of the privilege, then the procedure and law for quashing a subpoena, and concludes with appeals and a handful of other issues.

The beginning

In July 2001, an unpublished author working on a book about a Houston murder went to jail rather than turn over the information she had collected and the identities of the sources who gave it to her. In the end, Vanessa Leggett spent 168 days in jail, longer than any American journalist had ever been held for refusing to respond to a subpoena, and was only released when the term of the grand jury before whom she was supposed to testify expired.

“I just feel like I’m doing what I have to do to protect my First Amendment right to freedom of the press,” Leggett told an Associated Press reporter on her way to turning herself in. “I feel like what they are doing is wrong.” Almost six months later, her commitment had not wavered.

Greeted at her release by a throng of reporters, Leggett said she would be more than willing to go back to jail if she were subpoenaed again. “If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. This is not so much about me. It’s about the public’s right to a free and independent press.”

Leggett went to jail because the federal judge overseeing the grand jury found that there was no reporter’s privilege in the Fifth Circuit, the federal court circuit that includes Texas. And the U.S. Department of Justice, which is supposed to approve all subpoenas of journalists, said it did not get involved because, by its definition, an unpublished author is not a journalist.

The jailing of Vanessa Leggett underscores a problem that journalists have faced for decades: give up your source or go to jail. Most states and federal circuits have some sort of reporter’s privilege — the right to refuse to testify — that allows journalists to keep their sources confidential. But in every jurisdiction, the parameters of that right are different. Sometimes, the privilege is based on a statute enacted by the legislature — a shield law. In others, courts have found the privilege based on a constitutional right. Some privileges cover non-confidential information, some don’t. Freelancers are covered in some states, but not others.

In addition, many reporters don’t work with attorneys who are familiar with this topic. Even attorneys who handle a newspaper’s libel suits may not be familiar with the law on the reporter’s privilege in the state.

Because of these difficulties, reporters and their lawyers often don’t have access to the best information on how to fight a subpoena. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press decided that something could be done about this, and thus this project was born. Compiled by lawyers who have handled these cases and helped shape the law in their states and federal circuits, this guide is meant to help both journalists who want to know more about the reporter’s privilege and lawyers who need to know the ins and outs of getting a subpoena quashed.

Journalists should note that reading this guide is not meant as a substitute for working with a licensed attorney in your state when you try to have a subpoena quashed. You should always consult an attorney before trying to negotiate with a party who wants to obtain your testimony or when appearing in court to get a subpoena quashed or testifying. If your news organization does not have an attorney, or if you are not affiliated with an established organization, the Reporters Committee can help you try to find an attorney in your area.

The hows & whys of the reporter’s privilege

In the course of gathering news, journalists frequently rely on confidential sources. Many sources believe they may be subject to retribution for exposing matters of public importance to the press unless their identity remains confidential.

Doctor-patient, lawyer-client and priest-penitent relationships have long been privileged, allowing recipients to withhold confidential information learned in their professional capacity. However, the reporter’s privilege is much less developed, and journalists are frequently asked to reveal confidential sources and information they have obtained during newsgathering to attorneys, the government and courts. These “requests” usually come from attorneys for the government or private litigants as demands called subpoenas.

In criminal cases, prosecutors argue that reporters, like other citizens, are obligated to provide relevant evidence concerning the commission of a crime. Criminal defendants argue that a journalist has information that is essential to their defense, and that the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial outweighs any First Amendment right that the reporter may have. Civil litigants may have no constitutional interest to assert, but will argue that nevertheless they are entitled to all evidence relevant to their case.

When reporters challenge subpoenas, they argue that they must be able to promise confidentiality in order to obtain information on matters of public importance. Forced disclosure of confidential or unpublished sources and information will cause individuals to refuse to talk to reporters, resulting in a “chilling effect” on the free flow of information and the public’s right to know.

When asked to produce their notes, documents, or other unpublished material obtained during news gathering, journalists argue that these subpoenas intrude on the editorial process, and thus violate their First Amendment right to speak without fear of state interference. Some litigants who request information from the media are simply lazy. Rather than investigating to find appropriate witnesses, these litigants find it simpler and cheaper to compel journalists to reveal their sources or to hand over information.

But journalists also have legitimate reasons to oppose subpoenas over published, non-confidential information. Responding to such subpoenas consumes staff time and resources that should be used for reporting and editing.

If a court challenge to a subpoena is not resolved in the reporter’s favor, he or she is caught between betraying a source or risking a contempt of court citation, which most likely will include a fine or jail time.

Most journalists feel an obligation to protect their confidential sources even if threatened with jail time. When appeals have been exhausted, the decision to reveal a source is a difficult question of journalism ethics, further complicated by the possibility that a confidential source whose identity is revealed may try to sue the reporter and his or her news organization under a theory of promissory estoppel, similar to breach of contract. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that such suits do not violate the First Amendment rights of the media. Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.,501 U.S. 663 (1991).

The sources of the reporter’s privilege

The first and only time the U.S. Supreme Court considered a constitutionally based reporter’s privilege was in 1972 in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972). Justice Byron White, joined by three other justices, wrote the opinion for the Court, holding that the First Amendment does not protect a journalist who has actually witnessed criminal activity from revealing his or her information to a grand jury. However, a concurring opinion by Justice Lewis Powell and a dissenting opinion by Justice Potter Stewart recognized a qualified privilege for reporters. The privilege as described by Stewart weighs the First Amendment rights of reporters against the subpoenaing party’s need for disclosure. When balancing these interests, Stewart argued, courts should consider whether the information is “clearly relevant” and material to the party’s case, whether there is “a compelling and overriding interest in the information,” and whether the information could be obtained from any source other than the media. 408 U.S. at 743 (Stewart, J., dissenting).

Two other justices joined Justice Stewart’s dissent. These four justices together with Justice William O. Douglas, who also dissented from the Court’s opinion and said that the First Amendment provides journalists with almost complete immunity from being compelled to testify before grand juries, gave the qualified privilege issue a majority. The high court has not revisited the issue, and the lower courts have disagreed in their interpretation of Branzburg.

Since Branzburg was decided, a national consensus has emerged among the states, establishing protections for journalist-source communications. As of 2021, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted statutes, known as “shield laws,” that give journalists some form of privilege against compelled production of confidential or unpublished information.  The ten states that do not have shield laws are Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. However, each of these states, with the exception of Hawaii and Wyoming, have recognized some form of a privilege, either through judge-made common law or court rules. See, e.g., Utah R. Evid. 509.

There is still no federal shield law. Members of Congress have proposed various iterations of one in recent years, though none have passed the Senate. In 2021, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) introduced the PRESS Act, which would broadly protect journalists from having to disclose source information or work product to federal government entities, with limited exceptions.

Nevertheless, journalists facing subpoenas in federal court may still have some protections available to them, but this will depend on the jurisdiction and type of case. For example, if the underlying case involves “diversity jurisdiction”—meaning it is in federal court only because the parties are from different states and the amount at issue exceeds a certain sum—then the court will apply the substantive law of the state and will likely allow the journalist to invoke the protections of the state’s shield law. But if the case involves “federal question jurisdiction”—meaning it is in federal court because it requires interpretation of federal law or the U.S. Constitution—then the court will likely apply federal law, and the state shield law may not be available to the reporter.

Even if the shield law does not apply in federal court, in the decades since Branzburg was decided, most federal appellate courts have recognized some form of a qualified privilege for journalistic materials. The U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Seventh and Eighth Circuits are the only circuits that have not yet definitively done so. But the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuits have recognized a privilege in at least some cases, derived from the First Amendment. And at least the Third Circuit has also described the privilege as arising from federal common law.

Even in the absence of an applicable shield law or court-recognized privilege, journalists are sometimes successful in persuading courts to quash subpoenas based on generally-applicable rules against unduly burdensome subpoenas.

The scope of the reporter’s privilege

The scope of the privilege varies significantly depending on whether state or federal law applies, whether the underlying case is civil or criminal, and whether the subpoena seeks confidential or non-confidential information. Shield laws generally give greater protection to journalists than the state or federal constitution, according to many courts.

Who can invoke the privilege?

Shield laws usually have specific limits that exclude some journalists or certain material from coverage. For instance, some of the statutes define “journalist” in a way that only protects those who work full-time for a newspaper or broadcast station. Freelance writers, book authors, and non-traditional journalists can be left in the cold and have to rely on the First Amendment for protection. Broad exceptions for eyewitness testimony or for libel defendants also can remove protection from journalists, even though these situations often show the greatest need for a reporter’s privilege.

However courts have shown an increasing willingness to apply the privilege to online journalists in recent years. In 2019, for example, the Nevada Supreme Court held that that state’s shield law encompasses online publications, explaining that “a blog should not be disqualified from the news shield statute…merely on the basis that the blog is digital, rather than appearing in an ink-printed, physical form.” Toll v. Wilson, 135 Nev. 430, 453 P.3d 1215 (2019).

Multiple federal appellate courts, including the First, Second, Third, and Ninth Circuits, have adopted a functional definition of who can invoke the privilege—applying it to those engaged in gathering and disseminating information to the public, who had this intent from the start of the project.

Criminal vs. civil cases

Although some courts have held that there should be no distinction between civil and criminal cases, others have been more likely to apply the privilege in civil cases, where the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial is not at stake. In the civil context, nearly all federal appellate courts have recognized some form of a reporter’s privilege, and in the criminal context, most courts have as well, though a number have not.

Confidential vs. non-confidential information

To the extent a privilege applies, it will, at a minimum, cover information involving confidential sources. Every state in the country recognizes legal protections for a journalist’s confidential sources, except two—Hawaii (whose shield law lapsed due to a sunset provision) and Wyoming (which has never enacted a shield law and sees few subpoenas).

Some state shield laws, like those in California, Illinois, and New York, also protect non-confidential information, though the protections are sometimes weaker. For example, New York’s shield law provides absolute protection for confidential information but only a qualified protection for non-confidential information. Some federal courts, such as the Second Circuit, Third Circuit, and Ninth Circuit, also recognize a qualified privilege for non-confidential information.

Qualified vs. absolute privileges

In 16 states and the District of Columbia, the privilege for confidential sources is absolute, meaning it cannot be overcome, despite the circumstances. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In the remaining states, the privilege is qualified. Courts balance the potential need for disclosure in the case with the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of sources and information. The test often requires the party seeking the disclosure to show some variation of the following: that the subpoenaed information is relevant and material to the case, that it cannot be obtained from alternative sources, and that disclosure is in the public interest.  Subpoenaing parties often have difficulty satisfying all the elements needed for disclosure.

Above the law?

Outside of journalism circles, the reporter’s privilege suffers from an image problem. Critics often look at reporter’s shield laws and think that journalists are declaring that they are “above the law,” violating the understood standard that a court is entitled to “every man’s evidence,” as courts themselves often say.

But courts have always recognized the concept of “privileges,” allowing certain individuals to refuse to testify, out of an acknowledgment that there are societal interests that can trump the demand for all evidence. Journalists need to emphasize to both the courts and the public that they are not above the law, but that instead they must be able to remain independent, so that they can maintain their traditional role as neutral watchdogs and objective observers. When reporters are called into court to testify for or against a party, their credibility is harmed. Potential sources come to see them as agents of the state, or supporters of criminal defendants, or as advocates for one side or the other in civil disputes.

Critics also contend that exempting journalists from the duty to testify will be detrimental to the administration of justice, and will result in criminals going free for a lack of evidence. But 48 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws or court-recognized reporters privileges, and the Department of Justice also imposes restrictions – most recently updated and strengthened in 2021 – on federal agents and prosecutors who wish to subpoena journalists.  And yet there has been no indication that the courts have stopped working or that justice has suffered.

Courts in Maryland, in fact, have managed to function with a reporter’s shield law for well over a century. In 1896, John T. Morris, a Baltimore Sun reporter, reported that a number of elected officials and police officers were on the payrolls of illegal gambling establishments. A grand jury, which had just heard almost identical testimony, called him to testify. When he refused to name his source, he was imprisoned and only released when the grand jury’s term expired five days later. The same year, a Baltimore journalists’ club persuaded the General Assembly to enact legislation that would protect them from having to reveal sources’ identities in court. The statute has been amended a few times — mainly to cover more types of information and include broadcast journalists once that medium was created. But the state has never had the need to rescind the protection.

And the privilege, which was once considered a uniquely American idea that wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere, made its first large-scale international debut in December 2002 when the appeals court of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal decided that a qualified reporter’s privilege should be applied to protect war correspondents from being forced to provide evidence in prosecutions before the tribunal. A former Washington Post reporter’s attempt to quash a subpoena was greeted with skepticism at first, even as British reporters were testifying against accused war criminals, but the appellate body accepted the reporter’s arguments and created a reporter’s privilege that will undoubtedly influence courts in Europe and the United States in years to come.

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