Responding to news of prominent journalists facing jail time for refusing to reveal the names of anonymous sources, legislators nationwide have proposed reporter shield laws to help protect confidential sources.
A federal appeals court upheld a contempt of court ruling last week against New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper for refusing to divulge under court order the names of sources who revealed CIA Agent Valerie Plame’s identity in 2003. Miller and Cooper could receive sentences of up to 18 months. Connecticut state Rep. James Spallone, reacting to the Plame case and other recent court decisions, sponsored a bill to limit courts’ ability to issue subpoenas forcing reporters to reveal their confidential sources or face contempt of court charges.
“I think a shield law is very important to maintaining a free press,” Spallone said. “As long as reporters are using confidential sources responsibly, [they] are crucial to moving a difficult story forward.”
While Spallone’s bill has yet to appear before the state legislature, state Rep. Bill Dyson of New Haven said he expected the principle of the proposal would meet with approval.
“I think it’s something that we ought to have for reporters to protect their sources,” Dyson said. “My guess is that other representatives would probably see it the same way.”
But some are worried that the protection of a journalists’ special privilege might come at the expense of the justice system. Steve Chapman, a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, said in a column published Feb. 20 that reporters sometimes hold information that is impossible to attain otherwise.
“The press is right in saying an important principle is at stake: its ability to get information that the public needs to know,” Chapman said. “But in this case, that principle should yield to the need to protect agents who are serving their country.”
Connecticut is not alone in trying to pass shield laws for reporters. The U.S. Congress, in addition to Texas and other states, has recently indicated interest in adopting legislation to protect reporters’ ability to shield their sources’ anonymity. Shield laws are already on the books in 31 states, many having passed bills during the 1970s.
The notion of a First Amendment privilege for journalists appeared on the national scene in 1972, with the Supreme Court case Branzburg v. Hayes. Three separate reporters — including Paul Branzburg, who had witnessed two people manufacturing drugs — had been subpoenaed to testify against their sources. Although 17 states already had reporter shield laws in place at the time, the Supreme Court voted 4-1-4 against a First Amendment privilege for journalists, stating that Congress and states could legislate as they saw fit.
The impetus to pass shield laws largely died out until the Plame controversy, which resurrected interest in the legislation.
On Feb. 9, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican, proposed a bill in the Senate requiring federal courts to meet strict standards in order to issue subpoenas to reporters.
“It is important that we ensure reporters certain rights and abilities to seek sources and report appropriate information without fear of intimidation or imprisonment,” Lugar said in a press release. “Promises of confidentiality are essential to the flow of information the public needs about its government.”
At the same time, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia proposed an identical bill in the House.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd instituted a shield law proposal in the last congressional session, which would cover more journalists from subpoenas than the Lugar proposal.
“Democracy is premised on an informed citizenry,” Dodd said in November in support of his bill, the Associated Press reported. “A free press is the best guarantee of a knowledgeable citizenry.”
But the shield law largely remains an initiative on the state level. Spallone said national and state legislation could influence each other and urged state legislatures to pursue a shield law.
“If more states adopt the law, it may put pressure on Congress,” Spallone said.