Journalist Shield Law Derailed in House

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A proposal to shield journalists from revealing their confidential sources in court was shot down in the Texas House on a technical point Monday night, dashing its prospects for passage this session.

Journalists would get limited immunity from testifying in civil or criminal court cases and disclosing the identity of confidential sources under the proposed legislation.

Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican from Tomball, raised her technical objection after only a few minutes of House debate on the bill. She and others noted that some district attorneys oppose the measure.

Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, a Houston Republican and the House sponsor of the legislation, said several concessions have been made to district attorneys.

“It’s not an absolute privilege; it’s a qualified privilege that can be overcome,” he said.

Under existing law, a journalist who promises confidentiality to a source – and then refuses a judicial order to identify the person – could be jailed for contempt of court.

The proposal before the Legislature would require a judge to apply specific tests to determine whether a journalist’s information is essential as evidence in a civil or criminal case. Although journalists could still be ordered to testify in some cases, the bill provided the guidelines for judges to consider when ruling on a prosecutors’ subpoena.

The news industry calls it the “Free Flow of Information Act” and contends it would encourage whistleblowers to come forward to news reporters to expose corruption. Representatives from the newspaper and broadcast fields have pushed for the measure the past two legislative sessions. Broadcasters also have complained about an increasing number of subpoenas they are receiving from prosecutors for videotape.

After overcoming some opposition from the manufacturing industry, the shield law proposal continued to run into opposition from prosecutors, who said it could hinder their ability to gather evidence in criminal cases.

The Texas Daily Newspaper Association and Texas Press Association issued a statement laying blame for the bill’s death squarely on prosecutors.

“I’ve always had a lot of admiration for the prosecutors that work so hard for the state to put criminals behind bars,” said Fred Hartman, legislative chairman for the newspaper associations. But he said it’s “extremely disappointing” that district attorneys resorted to using a technicality after their arguments against the bill failed.

The Senate approved the bill earlier this month. But the derailing of the bill in the House so close to the May 28 end of the legislative session, and with legislative deadlines kicking in this week, makes its passage almost impossible.

“To fight for so long and to move this bill so far and have it snatched away on something that is completely non-substantive is neither good government, nor good for the people of Texas. The public’s right to know has been compromised by this action,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, a leading sponsor of the bill.

He said Riddle’s objection – about a problem with the legislative bill analysis – was “the most trivial of technicalities.”

Ellis said the Senate is now on record as favoring the measure and that he will fight for it again in the 2009 legislative session, along with Van Arsdale and Republican Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock, another sponsor.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have some form of a shield law, according to the Texas bill’s supporters.

The shield law bill is SB 966.

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