July 14, 2009
By Bob Welch
The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association is supporting a new initiative to pass a reporter shield law here in Wisconsin. Working with the Freedom of Information Council and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, we have been in talks with some key legislators for about a year. A new bill has now been introduced by Senator Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls) and Representative Joe Parisi (D- Madison). The bill is known as SB 235, the “Reporter Shield Law”.
Currently, Wisconsin reporters are protected only because of case law that relies upon a right in the Wisconsin constitution. In the Knops case from the 1970’s the Supreme Court ruled that reporters have the right to keep sources confidential unless there is no other way to discover the identity of the culprits. This was a pretty weak decision, but then in the 1995 case of Kurzynski v. Spaeth this protection was strengthened, adding that both the Wisconsin constitution and the First Amendment protected reporters.
For many years, news organizations had decided to leave well enough alone, but now it seems like the time is right to put this right to protect sources into the statutes. With 37 states having already done it, and with a major push on in Washington to pass a Federal version, WBA believes that we might be successful with an effort in Wisconsin as well.
SB 235 provides not only the same protection as currently we receive under case law, but provides absolute protection from compelled disclosure of the identity of a confidential source, no matter how important the case and despite having exhausted alternate sources for the information.
Under this proposal, only non-confidential news, information, or sources could be subpoenaed and then only if several criteria are met. In the pending criminal investigation or civil case, the news, information, or identity of source would have to be highly relevant, necessary, not obtainable from any alternative source, and there would need to be an overriding public interest in the disclosure.
Again, if the source or information are confidential, there would be no opportunity
whatsoever for a subpoena to be issued. So far, we have heard of no opposition, but the bill is just starting the process. Look for hearings this fall.
(This article can also be found at the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association website: http://www.wi-broadcasters.org/wba/index.php/main-news/ [+].)