Washington State House Passes Shield Law

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The House has unanimously passed a bill that would protect journalists from facing prison for not revealing confidential sources.

The measure passed Friday on a 96-0 vote, with two lawmakers excused, and now heads to the Senate, which is considering its own measure.

The bill would grant reporters absolute privilege for protecting confidential sources – the same exemption from testifying in court that is granted to spouses, attorneys, clergy and police officers.

“It is really important in a democratic society that we have a free press, that we as citizens know what is going on in our society, that the people in power who have an interest in keeping information from us shouldn’t be allowed to bury that information,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, who sponsored the measure.

Currently, Washington has no shield law, but its courts have ruled in favor of qualified privilege based on the First Amendment and on common law.

Washington’s proposed law would provide a more limited privilege on materials such as unpublished notes and tapes. Under its provisions, the media could be forced to disclose that information under certain circumstances, including when a judge finds it is necessary in a criminal or civil case and the material cannot be obtained elsewhere.

The measure overwhelmingly passed the House last year on a bipartisan 87-11 vote only to get stopped in the Senate, where it was never brought up for a floor vote. It had a public hearing in the Senate last month, was passed out of committee last week, and supporters there were more confident of its chances this year.

The bill defines a member of the media as anyone who earns a substantial portion of his or her income from publishing or broadcasting. Generally, authors of occasional opinion pieces or Internet bloggers would not be covered.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have enacted shield laws. A federal shield law had been considered in the 109th Congress, but no law was passed last year.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said four other states also are considering shield laws this year: Utah, Missouri, Massachusetts and Texas.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, who has made the shield law a major priority, was delighted with the House vote and predicted the Senate would approve it, too.

“It stands an excellent chance this year,” he said in an interview.

McKenna, a Republican, was the prime backer of last year’s version, but deferred to Democratic sponsors in the heavily Democratic Legislature this year, hoping to improve its chances.

“It’s good public policy to protect reporters’ confidential sources and work product,” he said. “We depend on reporters to bring us information about the workings of our government and the private sector.

“Sources are much more likely to come forward with critical information if they know their identities can be protected and they don’t have to fear reprisals. Journalists play a special role in our society and this bill recognizes that.”

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