Washington State Lawmakers Pass Journo Shield Bill

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The state of Washington’s House of Representatives today unanimously passed a bill that would protect journalists from facing prison for not revealing confidential sources.

The measure passed 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Washington’s proposed law would provide a more limited privilege on materials such as unpublished notes and tapes.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.

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