Wisconsin Shield Law Passed by Assembly, Awaits Further Approvals

By: Scott Bauer Reporters and their confidential sources would be protected under a bill passed Tuesday by the Wisconsin Assembly.

Backed by the state?s newspapers, broadcasters and other media outlets, the proposal is being heralded as a protection not only for journalists but also the anonymous sources who come to them with hot tips.

?Investigatory journalism would be much less than what it is today if there weren?t sources willing to take huge risks ? real or perceived ? to reveal waste, fraud and abuse,? said Peter Fox, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Reporters essentially serve as a conduit for those whistle-blowers, he said.

Wisconsin already has court rulings, but no state law, offering some protections for reporters. Should both houses of the Legislature pass the bill, it would make Wisconsin the 38th state with a so-called shield law protecting reporters and their sources.

No one is on record as opposing the Wisconsin measure. Similar measures in other states have drawn opposition from prosecutors who fear such protections make it more difficult to gather evidence in criminal cases.

Before the bill becomes law it must also pass the Senate and be signed by the governor. Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat and former three-term state attorney general, is generally supportive of the idea but hasn?t reviewed the bill yet, said his spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner.

The Senate bill, sponsored by former broadcast reporter Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, is awaiting a hearing.

The ?Whistleblower Protection Act? was drafted in consultation with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The bill uses as a benchmark a 1995 state appeals court ruling that said journalists have more protection than other witnesses from being forced to testify or provide information.

The ruling stemmed from a 1995 lawsuit filed by patients of a Milwaukee dentist accused of malpractice. A circuit court judge had ordered journalists who worked on a Milwaukee Magazine story about the dentist to testify and turn over notes and research materials.

The appeals court said the law gives journalists protection from such orders so that they can?t be used ?as investigative tools.?

Supporters argue that even though the court precedent helps reporters, it?s not as strong as a law with clear guidance for judges.

Under the bill, judges could order reporters to testify, produce information or reveal a source?s identity only when it is ?highly relevant? to the case or critical to at least one party?s argument. Attorneys would have to show they couldn?t get the information any other way and there was an overriding public interest in disclosing it.

The bill passed the Assembly on a voice vote.


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