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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Reporters Privilege Bill

By Senator Curt Bramble
District 16

A discussion with Al Manzi, publisher of the Daily Herald, convinced me to run a bill that provides protections to reporters and their confidential sources. I think the state should allow for a working dynamic similar to attorneys and their clients - or a priest and the parishioner who seeks his help.

I opened the bill file last night. Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the SPJ have been at the forefront of this issue for some time; I talked to Mark this morning and will work with him to craft the appropriate language.

The press is frequently critical of elected officials, including me. However, I don’t know how to have a free country without putting up with reporters.

While I may not like what they write, media access to information seems indispensable to ensuring government is open and accountable. Capable, incisive, investigative journalism is a hallmark and protector of a free society. It seems wise to protect that tradition. Jefferson, in 1787, said,
“. . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The existence of our government seems pretty secure at this point, so we may want to make sure reporters have some security as well.

A second motivation for this bill is to address judicial activism. Utah’s policy on Reporters’ Privilege is currently determined by judicial edict and precedent. As a rule, important public policy decisions should be set by elected officials who are directly accountable to the people. The legislature needs to define the rules; I’m not willing to abdicate that responsibility to the courts.

3 Comments:

Blogger Charley Foster said...

The part I admire most is taking the political risk and resisting punting political footballs into the courts' backyard. Much of judicial activism comes not from overreaching judges so much as from legislators who shirk their duties to make the tough choices.

11/23/2005 11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a journalism school graduate, I believe a statutory reporter's "privilege" compromises the media's independence.

Here's why:

*What the State giveth, the State can taketh away.

Once the State grants reporters a privilege against judicial subpoenas, the State can use the privilege as a bargaining chip to obtain favorable news coverage. "You want to keep the reporter's privilege? Then spike this story."

The news media is already too beholden to the State.

See http://www.uexpress.com/tedrall/?uc_full_date=20051115

*The privilege allows the State to launder leaks of potentially harmful (and potentially inaccurate) confidential information without accountability.

This latest round of support for a reporter's privilege comes in the wake of New York Times reporter Judith Miller's decision to disobey a court's order to reveal her source.

Miller was apparently used by Bush Administration officials to expose the spouse of a White House critic as a CIA agent.

How might such an abuse of a reporter's privilege play out here in Utah?

Let's assume that the State is involved in a lawsuit and doesn't like how a judge has been ruling. The State might know that the judge is being investigated by the Judicial Conduct Commission.

Such investigations are supposed to be confidential. But how can such confidentiality be guaranteed if a staffer on the Judicial Conduct Commission leaks details of the investigation to a reporter who promises confidentiality and is protected by law from revealing her source?

A couple of these leaks may remind the judge in question, and other judges, not to cross the State.

The State could similarly launder damaging confidential information through privileged journalists to damage defendants in pending criminal cases or political opponents (such as tax returns, medical records, etc.).

A free press should traffick information in the sunshine of disclosure and accountability, not in the darkness of privilege.

One of my j-school professors taught my class that journalists should not seek special privileges, and insist on being treated the same as ordinary citizens. To do otherwise puts journalists out of touch with the general public (as opposed to the more limitied public of political actors) they purport to serve. That the Society of Professional Journalists would seek this privilege shows how far many journalists have strayed from this ideal.

P.S.: I don't doubt that a judicially-created reporter's privilege exists in Utah, but I was unable to find it. Would someone care to cite the case that creates such a privilege?

11/23/2005 11:47 AM  
Anonymous The Senate Site said...

Matt Canham in today's Tribune:

Media shield law will be offered
Bramble, Shurtleff join forces in the legislation to protect news reporters

11/24/2005 2:53 PM  

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