The Texas Senate approved a bill Tuesday giving journalists limited privilege against being forced to testify in court or disclose confidential sources.
Dubbed the “Free Flow of Information Act,” the bill had struggled to win support of lawmakers concerned it would hinder prosecutors’ ability to gather evidence in criminal cases.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the bill is needed to protect confidential sources who might not come forward with valuable information for fear of being exposed.
“This is to protect the whistle blowers,” Ellis said after the bill passed the Senate 26-5. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. The legislative session is scheduled to end May 28.
“The press plays a vitally important role in our democracy and must be protected from government intimidation,” Ellis said.
News groups lobbied for the bill as necessary to protect sources and rein in prosecutors who might try to the media as an investigative arm of their office.
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.
Although journalists could still be ordered to testify in some cases, the bill provides the first guidelines for judges to consider when ruling on a prosecutors’ subpoena.
“Today’s vote in the Senate is a big step toward ensuring that Texas journalists can tell the stories that need to be told,” said Fred Hartman, legislative chairman for the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association.
Hartman said the bill wouldn’t make it harder for prosecutors to get convictions.
“It would simply set up a standard for a judge to use when determining whether or not a journalist must comply with a subpoena for sources or information relating to a news story.”
More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have some form of a journalist shield law.
Lawmakers insisted the bill gives journalists only limited privilege. Reporters who witness crimes or had information that could save someone’s life could be forced to testify.
“It is not an unbreakable shield, but simply a limited privilege for journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources,” Ellis said.
Amendments tacked on Tuesday also carved out more exemptions under the shield law, including information about sexual crimes against children, terrorism, murder, kidnapping, assault and other crimes.
“This amendment tries to make this bill a little bit more palatable,” said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “Prosecutors don’t want any bill. The media wants a bill that protects them from everything.”
The bill also would write into state law a definition of who is a journalist. In broad terms, it would be a professional reporter or editor working for a news outlet such as a newspaper, television or radio station or Internet news site. It also does not cover bloggers and student journalists.