Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has signed Senate Bill 96, a reporter shield law that will protect journalists – even unpaid ones working outside of mainstream professional news organizations – from being forced to share information gained in confidence.
The bill, proposed by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and Sen. Jeanette K. White (D-Windham), was proposed to address the lack of a shield law in Vermont and recent attempts to compel journalists to divulge information.
“This protection enables sources, from whistleblowers to victims of a crime, to feel confident in their ability to speak freely to the press,” Scott said at Wednesday’s bill signing.
The Vermont Press Association brought the request for some form of a shield law to members of the state Senate.
“We realized that we were one of the few states that didn’t have any kind of protection at all for reporters,” White said. “There were a few incidents last year that brought it to the forefront, with reporters being summoned.”
One such case White mentioned was of a reporter who was reporting on drug dealers who moved into women’s houses and used them as fronts for illicit business.
She said that authorities requested information from the reporter that could have jeopardized the women, who had spoken to him confidentially.
“(Sources) could lose their jobs. In the case of these women, they could have been arrested because they were shielding drug dealers,” White said. “They might be at risk of losing their children, and whether that’s right or wrong, it puts them at risk.”
Reporters face jail time if courts subpoena them for information that the journalists are unwilling to reveal for reasons of confidentiality.
“Some of the journalists wanted absolute immunity for everything, and we didn’t give that,” White said. “There is immunity for a confidential source and then there’s limited immunity if it’s not a confidential source.”
The law also prevents authorities from going through third party sources that obtained the information from the journalists, such as employers or editors.
“If they legitimately couldn’t get it from the journalist then they couldn’t go through getting it from their telephone records or anything like that,” White said.
The law includes a broad definition of who is a protected journalist. Any “individual or organization engaging in journalism” is covered, without exception, so students at all levels should be entitled to claim the privilege.
However, the law applies only to subpoenas or other court-enforced demands to divulge confidential information, so it remains unclear how protected a student or adviser would be in the event of a demand from a college or school authority.
Separately, a bill instituting New Voices legislation in Vermont is awaiting the governor’s signature.
House Bill 513 was delivered to the governor on May 17, and includes language that will establish censorship protections for student media in college and K-12 schools.
The bill also includes protection for faculty advisers from retaliation for supporting the students actions.
Exceptions to the bill’s protections include speech that is defamatory, obscene, gratuitously profane, threatening or intimidating, or violates state or federal law.