Unanimous Calif. Assembly Vote Urges Federal Shield Law

By: Mark Fitzgerald

By a unanimous 70-0 vote, the California state Assembly urged the U.S. Congress to enact a shield law to protect journalists.

The resolution is sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the California First Amendment Coalition, Californians Aware, and the Planning and Conservation League.

Noreen Evans, a Democratic Assembly member from Santa Rosa, authored the resolution. “A free press is essential to preserving the American way of life,” she said in a prepared statement. “The lack of a federal shield law undermines our ability to protect freedom of the press in California under our own laws.”

The resolution, AJR 31, now goes to the state Senate Rules Committee, which on Wednesday is expected to waive a hearing so the measure can be voted on before the legislature adjourns for the year Sept. 9.

Evans argued in the legislature that a journalist’s promise of confidentiality to a news source “is often the only way the public learns about waste, fraud, and abuse within government and the private sector.”

“Unless individuals know that their identity will be protected by journalists, they will not come forward as news sources and speak to journalists about information of great importance to the public interest,” she said.

California has a long history of protecting journalistic privilege. It enacted its shield law in 1935, and in 1980 it was made part of the state constitution in a referendum.

The shield law was strengthened again in 2000 by legislation requiring that journalists subpoenaed in any civil or criminal proceeding must be given at least five day’s notice, expect in “urgent circumstances.” The legislation provided as well that when a journalist who asserts shield law protection is subpoenaed, a judge must put on the record the reasons why the testimony about a confidential source is essential to guarantee a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

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