Pressing for ‘shield’ law

By: David Noack

North Carolina is on the verge of becoming the 31st state to adopt a reporter’s “shield” law.
If the measure is approved, as expected, Tar Heel State journalists would be afforded some protection from having to divulge news sources or turn over their notes. Already, 30 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws. The law would become effective on Oct. 1.
The measure working its way through the state Legislature calls for a “qualified privilege,” which means that anyone serving a reporter with a subpoena would first have to pass a three-part test. This would include determining whether the information being sought could be obtained elsewhere, whether it is essential to the claim being made, and whether it is highly relevant to the legal proceeding.
William E.N. Hawkins, vice president and executive editor of The Herald-Sun in Durham, who is leading the effort to get the law passed, is confident lawmakers will approve the legislation.
The state press association had been discussing the idea of moving forward with a shield law, especially after a recent rash of adverse court rulings and since a couple of court decisions are pending. It was decided in April to move quickly to get a law passed.
“There was a lot of debate about it. The association did not give us the go-ahead to pursue this until early April. ? We literally did it before Easter ? against tough odds from people who said you can’t do it,” says Hawkins.
Democratic state Sen. David Hoyle, who introduced the Senate version of the bill, is confident the bill will be approved.
There’s no organized opposition to the bill, although Raleigh’s mayor and some council members spoke against the measure at a hearing before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
One of the initial versions of the bill introduced in the House called for an “absolute” privilege, which would mean a reporter could not be forced to testify. That measure was withdrawn by the sponsor after opposition from lawmakers.
Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, says there’s been a reluctance in the past to go to lawmakers for a shield law. But with court decisions going against the press, it was time to act.
“You’d rather not have to appeal to lawmakers. You would hope that the court system would see things the way you do, but that’s not happening,” says Gyllenhaal.
A key test case pending before the state Supreme Court involves J. Andrew Curliss, a reporter for The News & Observer. Curliss conducted a jailhouse interview with Derrick Allen, who was charged with a first-degree sexual offense. Later, a local prosecutor issued a subpoena seeking the reporter’s notes.
A judge ruled there was no First Amendment privilege involved and that Curliss had to turn over his notes. The appeal of this ruling is now before the state’s highest court.
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., says reporters have been losing ground with recent court rulings.
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