Hawaii risks turning one of America’s best reporter’s privilege laws into one of the worst

Urged on by the state attorney general, a Hawaii Senate committee is proposing to drastically narrow the state’s 2008 reporter shield statute, putting the ability of student journalists to protect confidential sources at risk.

In amendments approved Wednesday, a Senate committee pared back the scope of the reporter’s privilege so that it would benefit only journalists “professionally associated” with traditional news organizations.

The current Hawaii statute enables two classes of people to protect their unpublished material and the identity of their sources if confronted with a demand in connection with a legal proceeding:

(1) “[A] journalist or newscaster presently or previously employed by or otherwise professionally associated with any newspaper or magazine or any digital versiona thereof.”

(2) A person who can demonstrate by “clear and convincing evidence” that he or she “has regularly and materially participated in the reporting or publishing of news or information of substantial public interest for the purpose of dissemination to the general public” or that he or she occupies a position “materially similar or identical to that of a journalist or newscaster.”

It’s that second class of protected people that Attorney General David M. Louie has convinced a Senate committee to delete. That’s dangerous for students — since a court may not consider them to be “professionally associated” with a student publication, especially if they are unpaid — but also for bloggers and for investigative reporting websites that are not a “digital version” of a newspaper or magazine.

Hawaii codified its reporter shield in 2008, but with a five-year “sunset” that means the statute will self-destruct if not renewed this session. The prospect of losing the privilege places journalism advocates in the regrettable position of accepting a deficient law or none at all.

A “clean” bill (HB 622) that simply renews the life of the existing, broad shield law overwhelmingly passed the state House, but got hijacked in the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee.

Assuming the modified bill passes the full Senate, it still must go back to the House because of the chambers’ differing versions, so an opportunity remains to restore the legislation to its more protective form and retain Hawaii’s status as a national leader.

Contact information for members of the Hawaii Senate is available online. The SPLC offers a 50-state guide to the reporter’s privilege and student journalists under the “Know Your Rights” section of splc.org.