Shield Law passed during Sunshine Week
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Shield Law passed during Sunshine Week

Date: March 15, 2007
By: Sarah D. Wire
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri journalists would have a limited legal right to refuse to divulge their confidential sources under a measure passed overwhelmingly by Missouri's House Thursday.

The proposed "Shield Law" would protect journalists and news organizations from having to reveal sources or unpublished information during civil or criminal proceedings. But the protection would not be absolute.  The bill would allow a judge to weigh the public interest of such disclosure, identify if the information could be obtained elsewhere before requiring journalists to reveal their sources.

One provision of the bill gives judges guidelines for determining what information journalists have to reveal in court.

The win for journalists may be short lived however.

"I'm going to kill it deader than a hammer," vowed the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee --  Sen. Matt Bartle R- Lee's Summit. 

A similar bill died in Bartle's committee last year and Bartle said his feelings about a journalist shiel law have not changed.

This year's bill is sponsored by Rep. Tim Jones, R- Eureka who is an attorney. "As an attorney, I understand the importance of privilege," Jones said.

Jones said that sometimes attorney's use journalists to gather information, instead of doing their own investigative work and this bill would put a stop to that. Jones also said by protecting journalists sources, people who want  to expose wrongs in the state are also protected.

"It's going to help the public by ensuring that the free flow of information is not stopped by someone trying to put the freeze on journalists," Jones said.

Despite support from the House, opponents in the Senate said a Shield Law is not necessary because it provides protection for journalists so they can be above the court.

"I don't think the government should provide protection for one group to not have to tell the truth in court,"  Bartle said.

He said the only change to the bill that he would accept would leave it with absolutely no effect.

Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, agreed with Bartle and was outspoken on last year's Shield Law bill.

"People have somehow twisted freedom of the press," Koster said. "Freedom of the press does not equal freedom from the courts."

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau,who sponsored a similar bill last year in the Senate said the overwhelming support the bill saw in the House is an example to of the support it has in the state.

"I think it's sad that a minority of a minority in the Senate is putting a block to it," Crowell said." If this is going to become a law a compromise will have to be passed."

Sen. Maida Coleman, D- St. Louis, said she has been following the bill's progress through the House and intends to support it in the Senate.

"To me it's a requirement. If you're a journalist the you need to be able to do your job," said the Senate's Democratic leader -- a journalism graduate and former reporter.

Jones said the bill is different than in previous years because it addresses many of the concerns brought up in the Senate last year.

"It all depends on what committee it goes to," Jones said.

Coleman agreed and said, "you've already got two people who say they won't support it, so you don't want it to go to their committee."

Thirty-one states have journalist shield laws, including five of the seven states that surround Missouri, according to the Poynter Institute, a national journalism think tank.  There is no national "Shield Law" -- as evidenced by reporters who were jailed for refusing to reveal sources in the federal investigation that led to indictments against the vice president's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby.

In April 2006, attorney's on both sides of the Aaron O'Neal wrongful death suit subpoenaed photo's from the Columbia Daily Tribune. The Tribune attempted to fight to fight the court order, but were unsuccessful.

March 11-17 marks the third-annual Sunshine Week wherein journalists and their allies work to promote freedom of information from the government.

Jones said it was an accident that the bill passed the house during Sunshine Week but he thinks Republican Floor Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, may have had a hand in it coming up at this time.