The Reporters Committee applauds Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s signing of a reporter’s shield law that will protect a journalist’s confidential sources.
The bill, H.B. 670, was signed by the governor on Wednesday, making Texas the 37th state to enact a shield law.
“Popular wisdom had it that Texas would never pass a shield law,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “It is remarkable that the Texas media, local prosecutors, state legislators and statewide elected officials agreed upon an innovative bill that will ensure information flows to the people of Texas.”
The bill provides a qualified privilege for reporters, meaning that the protections can be overcome under certain circumstances.
In civil cases, the privilege can be overcome if: the subpoenaing party can show that the material cannot be obtained from alternative sources; that the subpoena is not overbroad or unreasonable; that timely notice was given; that the interest of the subpoenaing party “outweighs the public interest in gathering and dissemination of news”; that the subpoena is not being served to obtain peripheral or speculative information; and that the information sought is relevant and material to the underlying claim. Such considerations are typical in qualified reporter’s privileges in other states, although the “public interest” balancing element is less common and gives journalists greater protection when reporting stories of compelling public interest.
Similar protections apply in criminal cases, although the privilege is easier to overcome if the subpoena seeks information about a grand jury leak or a confidential source in a criminal case in which the reporter witnessed the source committing a felony. Other exceptions to the shield include instances where a source has admitted committing a felony to a journalist, or if there is probable cause to believe the source did commit such a crime, or if disclosure is deemed necessary to prevent “reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.”
The bill has a broad definition of a “journalist” specifically intended to include anyone who gathers or publishes news in any format, including solely on the Internet. However, it does limit coverage to those reporters who write “for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain,” which would rule out many Web-based journalists.
The law takes effect immediately.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.