By: David Noack
North Carolina lawmakers have approved a bill that will give limited protection to reporters who are called to testify in court and reveal their sources.
The measure now goes to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. for his signature. If the bill is signed into law, North Carolina would become the 31st state to offer reporters limited immunity. Already, 30 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws. The law would become effective Oct. 1.
The proposal calls for a “qualified privilege.” This means that anyone subpoenaing a reporter would first have to pass a three-part test, which consists of whether the information being sought could be obtained elsewhere, the information is essential to the claim being made, and the testimony or information is highly relevant to the legal proceeding.
During the course of the bill’s passage through the state Legislature, it was amended to include a provision that would not exempt a reporter from testifying if he or she witnessed a crime. In addition, a portion of the three-part test that must be met before a reporter is called to testify was watered down.
“By and large, we are real happy with it. We got a bill that’s going to do what we need it to do, and our lawyers are comfortable with it [and] our [legislative] sponsors are comfortable with it. … It’s not easy [any time] you get the media before the Legislature,” says William E.N. Hawkins, vice president and executive editor of The Herald-Sun in Durham.
Hawkins, who heads the legislative committee of the North Carolina Press Association, says the organization had discussed pursuing a shield law, especially since a recent rash of adverse court rulings and a couple of pending court decisions.
Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, also is pleased with the final results.
“This is a huge step forward for us. Most of what we needed is taken care of with the bill. The changes they made through the legislative [process] were reasonable. In the end, we’re delighted to have some protection,” says Gyllenhaal.
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va., says North Carolina is becoming a place to press cases against the media.
“North Carolina seems to have lately become an unlikely ground zero for suits against the media ? Food Lion, the Wilmington case involving both a prior restraint and subpoenas to compel disclosure of sources, and even the ’60 Minutes II’ prior-restraint attempt. These cases are in federal court, of course, but to me they suggest that North Carolina is perceived as a plaintiff-friendly state,” says Kirtley.
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