SPJ debates shield law’s effectiveness to protect journalists, sources

Dana Owen

The Shield Law was passed in Connecticut rather quickly after a concerted effort by the chapter to push it through following the group’s previous conference about the subject in January. Efforts to pass a law in Connecticut hit a high note after the jailing of multiple journalists like Judith Miller, a reporter from the New York Times who was sentenced after refusing to reveal information regarding the investigation of a leak that exposed the name of a CIA operative.

Daniel Klau, a media attorney from Pepe and Hazel, explained the new law in detail. He said that while the law is vague, it does not specifically cover some individuals involved in the media.

“It doesn’t, in my opinion, do a good job of establishing the status of bloggers, freelance journalists not under contract, or individuals investigating issues for a book project, in other words, first-time authors,” he said.

One positive of the law, according to Klau, is that it requires judges to attempt to negotiate a resolution before issuing a subpoena. Even then, the statute does not require that a judge resort to such a summons.

“I’m a big fan of the words “shall” and “may” in statutes,” Klau said. “‘May’ in this statute means that the judge always retains the discretion to squash the subpoena.”

Other journalists were not so optimistic.

“I’ve spent so much time around lawyers that it makes me think that I should have listened to my mother and gone to law school,” said panel member Kirk Varner, Vice President of news and news director for Channel 8 News.

He said that the law should be looked at like a watch that is “not waterproof but water-resistant with some leaks” and that “only time will tell how good the watch is.” He also said it should not be looked at as a “‘get out of jail-free card.'”

As far as whether or not unpaid high school and college journalists will be covered by the state law the panelists agreed, “we are all speculating on this at this point,” Klau said. Though they also agree that “a college newspaper is a newspaper,” students working for such an organization are unclear in terms of whether or not their job descriptions fall under the requirement that the law outlines. One suggestion was that student journalists could be considered “agents of the news media.”

“Basically the law has no specific terms for school journalists who are not paid or under contract,” Varner said.

Klau added that despite this fact, the law is interpretable.

“I would say that [student journalists] can be pretty aggressive in stretching this law,” Klau said.

Some journalists believe that there should be no Shield Law and that such a law provides the media with an undue advantage.

“I think Connecticut should be ashamed of this,” said Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal-Enquirer. “It’s a privilege. The same sort we oppose when everyone else is seeking it.”

He said that the law will not do much to protect journalists.

“The whole thing is a joke,” he said. “Especially the part that says [the court] can only get information if they really need it. Well, guess who’s going to decide that folks? I couldn’t care less about this thing. It has no practical application.”

Vincent Valvo, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information who co-sponsored the event, said that in order to create real change there need to be “galvanizing incidents” and that the issue journalists should be focusing on now is court openness and allowing things like court dockets and judicial board meetings to be made public.

“[The shield law] undercuts our credibility as journalists when we present ourselves as ambassadors for the public while seeking special privilege for ourselves,” he said. “What should be focused on now is the court assuming authority that it does not have under our Federal Constitution.”

The keynote speech, made by Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, another co-sponsor of the event, updated the group on the progress of shield laws on the federal front.

“It’s been a depressing week,” she said. “This government has more control over its message than any I remember.”

She said that if the federal law passes, it would only protect journalists who work for pay.

“This includes bloggers, if they are paid,” she said. “It specifically excludes high school and college journalists who are unpaid. Then again, we don’t get too many subpoenas for those people either.”

She offered practical suggestions for journalists to provide them with some protective measures against being forced to reveal sources.

“Use disposable cell phones when speaking to confidential sources, don’t, for the love of God, type notes on a company’s computer. The computer belongs to the company not to you,” she said. “Tape over your outtakes after 72 hours. And editors, you need to lay down the law with your reporters and make a decision about using anonymous sources.”

The conference was filmed in its entirety by CTN, Connecticut’s public affairs network. It will be aired at a date to be announced. For more information, visit the network’s Web site www.ctn.state.ct.us/.