Wisc. legislature passes shield bill

WISCONSIN -- Wisconsin may soon join the majority of states with journalistic shield laws, which protect professional and student journalists from being compelled to divulge confidential sources or information, when the governor signs the new bill.

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

"It passed both houses ... and I have indications that Governor Jim Doyle 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 bill refers to journalists, does not specify that journalists must be paid employees.

The bill states a subpoena can be issued to compel information from a journalist only when "clear and convincing evidence" demonstrates that the information in question is "highly relevant" to an investigation, 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 or identity of the source."

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the scope of the language defining a "news person" covers people contributing to almost any established news source. "This language is pretty protective of students. It definitely requires affiliation with a news organization, but news organization is fairly broadly defined. And most importantly, there's no requirement that the journalist receive any significant payment," LoMonte said.

Fox, who said the Wisconsin Newspaper Association is "delighted with the passage of this bill," also addressed the importance of the language in the bill that protects not only journalists, but also to their sources. Since journalists are only a "conduit" for information between their sources and the public, Fox said, the sources need protection to counteract "the risk that citizen whistleblowers take" when revealing information to journalists.

"A whistleblower can't do much without a journalist, and a journalist can't do much without a whistleblower. But to me it's the whistleblowers that take the greater risk and so I really have a problem when this legislation is described as a reporters' shield," Fox said.

Other organizations supporting the bill were the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Fox said. He expects the governor to sign the bill by the end of May.

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