Journalist Shield Law Fails to Get Vote in Texas State Senate

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A bill to protect journalists from being forced to testify or disclose confidential sources fizzled in the Texas State Senate on Thursday under concerns it could hinder criminal prosecutions.

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, thought he had the support needed to bring the bill up for a vote, but the measure withered after falling two votes short. Under Senate rules, two-thirds of the senators must agree to allow a bill to be brought to a vote. Ellis needed 20 votes Thursday, but he got only 18.

Under state 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 bill 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.

“We want to have a free press. That’s what protects people without power from people who do,” Ellis said.

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have some form of a journalist shield law.

But several lawmakers said the bill could hinder criminal prosecutions and would extend a rare privilege to reporters currently covered only by attorney-client relationships, spouses and clergy.

“When people come to court, we want the truth. We’re very stingy granting this kind of privilege to people,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands who voted against the bill.

Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association Legislative Advisory Committee, said the vote was a “disappointment to everyone who wants to ensure a free flow of information to the public.”

“We remain convinced that this is a balanced bill that will allow prosecutors to do their jobs while ensuring protection for sources that wish to remain anonymous,” he said.

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