Wisc. legislature passes shield bill

WISCONSIN — Wisconsin may soon join the majority of states withjournalistic shield laws, which protect professional and student journalistsfrom being compelled to divulge confidential sources or information, when thegovernor signs the new bill.

Assembly Bill 333 passed both houses this week by verbal vote. The billwas brought to the Senate by Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, after beingbrought to the Assembly by Rep. Joe Parisi, D-48th District, saidPeter Fox, executive director for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

“It passed both houses … and I have indications that Governor JimDoyle is likely to sign it,” Fox said.

The bill would likely protect student journalists working for”longstanding and recognized” student news organizations, Fox said,since the language defining who is a “news person,” as the billrefers to journalists, does not specify that journalists must be paid employees.

The bill states a subpoena can be issued to compel information from ajournalist only when “clear and convincing evidence” demonstratesthat the information in question is “highly relevant” to aninvestigation, is necessary to prove a criminal or civil claim, and is not”obtainable from any alternative source,” and that there is”overriding public interest in the disclosure of the information oridentity of the source.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, saidthe scope of the language defining a “news person” covers peoplecontributing to almost any established news source.”Thislanguage is pretty protective of students. It definitely requires affiliationwith a news organization, but news organization is fairly broadly defined. Andmost importantly, there’s no requirement that the journalist receive anysignificant payment,” LoMonte said.

Fox, who said the Wisconsin Newspaper Association is “delighted withthe passage of this bill,” also addressed the importance of the languagein the bill that protects not only journalists, but also to their sources. Sincejournalists are only a “conduit” for information between theirsources and the public, Fox said, the sources need protection to counteract”the risk that citizen whistleblowers take” when revealinginformation to journalists.

“A whistleblower can’t do much without a journalist, and ajournalist can’t do much without a whistleblower. But to me it’s thewhistleblowers that take the greater risk and so I really have a problem whenthis legislation is described as a reporters’ shield,” Fox said.

Other organizations supporting the bill were the Wisconsin BroadcastersAssociation and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Fox said. Heexpects the governor to sign the bill by the end of May.