Massachusetts considers reporter's privilege bill that would include high school, college journalists

MASSACHUSETTS — Massachusetts is considering proposed legislation that if enacted, would establish a reporter’s privilege for the state’s high school, college and professional journalists.

If passed, the state would be the second to explicitly protect high school journalists from having to disclose confidential sources, although several states’ existing provisions also apply to high school students.

At a joint hearing last month, Susan Wornick, a reporter for Boston’s ABC affiliate news station WCVB-TV, told senators about nealy facing jail time while reporting about allegations of corruption within a local police department in the 1980s. She refused to reveal her confidential source’s identity to police and a grand jury, although ultimately the source identified himself.

The bill’s supporters concede that getting the bill to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk for his signature by the end of term next year will be an uphill battle. None of the bill’s previous versions have ever made it out of committee, said Rep. Alice Peisch, a Democrat who is one of the bill’s two sponsors.

“The fact that there hasn’t been a similar situation that’s come up (in the news) doesn’t give this the urgency one typically needs to get a bill through. We get thousands of bills filed, but there has to be some sense of urgency,” Peisch said, adding that Wornick’s 1980s case was the most recent she’s heard about in her state. “Without the example of a reporter who has in fact had to go to jail to protect their source, it doesn’t seem as though this is a compelling need as one might think.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said Wednesday that he brought the 2012 version of the bill to the attention of the state’s professional and scholastic press associations after he observed it didn’t include protections for students or other amateur journalists. The New England Scholastic Press Association communicated those concerns to legislators, and the language in the current version is “comparable” to what the SPLC had suggested, LoMonte said.

“We wanted to make sure we got the broadest possible coverage for people doing journalism even at the high school level,” he said. “It’s really gratifying to see that they recognized the importance of that coverage.”

Peisch said she hasn’t yet heard criticism from legislators over the inclusion of student journalists in the bill’s protection, but hasn’t ruled out the possibility it may come up in future debates. She said she chose to include students in the legislation after a student newspaper adviser contacted her last year with concerns about a previous version of the bill that did not specifically identify student journalists as a “covered person.”

“(The adviser) made what I thought was a fairly compelling case. From my point of view … the real challenge on this statute in the current environment is how to define journalist in a way that is broad enough to include everyone who is a bona fide journalist but not broad enough to include everyone who has a website and writes a few sentences,” Peisch said. “Now that we have zillions of outlets and blogs, it’s much more difficult to define.”

Student newspapers are media “that lent themselves to being easily defined,” thus making their reporters deserving of shield law protection, Peisch said.

In a statement presented to the state legislature, Peter Caruso, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association’s attorney, called upon Massachusetts to join the District of Columbia and 40 other states that already have some form of shield law protecting journalists. He said that the public, rather than media, will ultimately benefit most from such a law, adding that consistent legal protection of the relationship between reporters and sources promotes strong watchdog journalism that encourages public accountability.

“This bill would establish clearer standards to guide courts and journalists alike. While retaining important exceptions for matters of public security and terrorism, it would establish a standard for protection for confidential sources that would be clear and unequivocal,” he said. “Investigative reporting helps weed out corruption and criminality in government and business. The protection of sources is for the public good.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.