NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON · Confidentiality/Privilege · March 9, 2007
Washington state Senate passes shield bill
March 9, 2007 · The Washington state Senate passed a shield bill Thursday by a 41-7 vote, with one lawmaker excused, that would allow journalists to protect both their confidential sources and newsgathering materials.
The state’s House of Representatives voted 96-0, with two lawmakers excused, last month in favor of a similar bill.
The Senate bill provides an absolute privilege for confidential sources, which means that a reporter can never be compelled to reveal the identity of a source to whom he or she has made a promise of confidentiality.
Additionally, the bill contains a qualified privilege for “[a]ny news or information obtained or prepared by the news media in its capacity in gathering, receiving, or processing news or information for potential communication to the public.” A judge can compel a journalist to turn over notes, outtakes, photographs and recordings when the information is “highly relevant” to either a criminal or civil case and not available from alternative sources.
The law would protect a wide range of journalists, including book authors, freelancers and online-only publications. The bill says that in order to invoke the law’s protections, a journalist must be employed or connected with an “entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public”
If the bill becomes law, Washington will become the 33rd state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to enact such legislation. Currently, the shield laws of six other states and the District of Columbia include an absolute privilege for confidential sources and a qualified privilege for all other materials similar to the Washington legislation.
In the absence of shield legislation, Washington courts have ruled in favor of a qualified privilege for journalists based on common law and the First Amendment.
Thursday’s Senate vote signified substantial progress for the legislation; a similar bill passed the state House last year by an 87-11 vote but never made it to the Senate floor.
(S. 5358) — ES