The Massachusetts Legislature this week will consider, once again, whether journalists should be protected from subpoenas ordering them to give up their confidential sources or turn over unused notes, video footage and the like.
According to Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the bill, called the “Free Flow of Information Act,” will be the subject of a public hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Tuesday at 1 p.m. The bill is being sponsored by state Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley.
In an era defined by blogging, social media and citizen journalism, one of the key questions that comes up whenever shield laws are discussed is who should be covered. Many of us argue that it’s journalism, not journalists, that should be protected, and that if a lone blogger is able to convince a judge that she’s engaged in bona fide journalism, then she should be covered just as fully as someone who’s on staff at the Boston Globe.
Fortunately, the bill being considered this week appears to allow for exactly that. I’ve asked Ambrogi for clarification (he has since weighed in, below), but what I’m looking at is the definition of “news media,” which is described in the bill as follows (my emphasis):
[A]ny newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book publisher, news agency, wire service, radio or television station or network, cable or satellite station or network, or audio or audiovisual production company, or any entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means, including, but not limited to, print, broadcast, photographic, mechanical, internet, or electronic distribution.
The bill specifies very strict protection for anonymous sources and less strict protection for unused notes, footage and other materials accumulated in the course of newsgathering but not actually used. That’s in accord with longstanding legal tradition, so no surprise there. There’s an exception “to prevent imminent and actual harm to public security from acts of terrorism” as well.
Ambrogi reports that Massachusetts is now just one of 10 states that does not have a shield law. But the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has recognized a limited right for reporters to protect their sources. In fact, the only state with no shield protection whatsoever is Wyoming.
By far the most significant gap is the lack of a federal shield law, compounded by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Branzburg v. Hayes that journalists do not have a constitutional right to protect their sources. That gap has been exploited by federal authorities in states where journalists would otherwise have shield protection — such as the cases of Jim Taricani in Rhode Island and Josh Wolf in California.
The bill being considered this week has come up before, and I don’t know whether there’s any more reason to think it will pass now than it has in previous years. Personally, I’m lukewarm on shield laws, since they can give an already-skeptical public reason to believe that the media are a privileged class.
But the Massachusetts bill appears to be carefully drafted, and would do no more than level the playing field with respect to most other states.
Instant update: I just heard from Ambrogi, who confirms that the bill would give citizen journalists a chance to argue that they should be entitled to shield-law protections as well — although he cautions that the word “business” might mean they have to be “at least trying to derive some income from the citizen journalism.”