Today we discussed the privilege and protection for sources and stories in my introduction to journalism class. A very important principle every reporter needs to understand is the shield law. The first state shield law was passed in Maryland on 1896, because a “Baltimore Sun” reporter went to prison for refusing to reveal a source to a grand jury. Shield laws, which exist in 34 states, protect journalists and news organizations from having to reveal their confidential sources, unpublished information and documents. Missouri is still one of the states without any shield law. The shield laws vary from state to state. A shield law aims to provide the classic protection of a reporter cannot be forced to reveal his or her source.
The Fight for a Federal Shield Law
Until today there is no federal shield law and state shield laws vary in scope. In the latest step in a seven-year effort to pass a federal shield law, Mike Pence, who has announced he will run for Indiana governor, has re-introduced a bill in the House of Representatives. This proposed bill would provide protections for journalists in federal courts. In addition, the bill will provide a qualified privilege for journalists, except for the prevention of body injury or death, national security, or information that is necessary in a criminal case. Journalists are defined as persons, who regularly reports and writes for a substantial part of their livelihood. The Society of Professional Journalists and a lot of other journalism organization support the Federal State Law, because many journalists have lost a lot of money fighting the battle to deliver information and source names.
Judith Miller & Josh Wolf – call for federal shield law
Former “New York Times” reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a leak named Valeria Plame as under cover CIA personnel. After the 12 weeks in jail, Judith Miller could say she has a huge interest in getting a federal shield law that would protect journalists from being forced to hand out their sources. Miller was set free after her source gave her permission to reveal his identity.
Josh Wolf stayed longer in prison than any other journalist in the history of the United States. He was jailed for refusing to hand over a collection of videotapes. The videotapes have shown a demonstration in California. According to Wolf his case was brought directly before a federal grand jury to avoid California´s shield laws.
Finally I would like to mention a quote by Pence because I really agree with him and I also think that it is more and more important to have a federal shield law.
“Without the free flow of information from sources to reporters, the public is ill-equipped to make informed decisions.”