KS Legislature passes Shield Law

Kansas State Capitol Building (via citmedialaw.org)

It has finally happened. The Kansas Legislature Tuesday passed a Shield Law, which will “give journalists limited protection against being forced to identify unnamed sources or disclose information they hadn’t published or broadcast,” according to Associated Press writer John Millburn’s report on BusinessWeek.com.

This has been long overdue, especially in light of the recent case in Dodge City, Kan., when reporter Claire O’Brien was held in contempt for not revealing a source (you can read more about my thoughts and coverage of that case here — http://voiceofthevogts.wordpress.com/?s=Claire+O%27Brien — and my thoughts specifically about a Shield Law and the reasons for it here — http://voiceofthevogts.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/free-press-being-attacked-in-kansas/).

Journalists need this type of protection to ensure they can report important stories where if people are identified they might be put in danger.

Now, as soon as Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson (D) signs the bill (you can view that bill here) into law at least, journalists won’t have to give up information that helped them report a story unless “a state judge ruled that the information was relevant to a case and could not be obtained in another way.”

That’s fine. At least reporters will be able to remain independent and not fearful of being bullied into turning over sources who have been promised anonymity in order to uncover something important and vital to the public’s well-being.

Something of particular note is this bill seems to extend far enough to cover student journalists. As the Citizen Media Law Project reported, “The bill states that a ‘journalist’ is a ‘publisher, editor, reporter or other person employed by’ a news outlet.  The bill does not require that a covered individual be a professional reporter.  As Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC (Student Press Law Center) said, ‘The Kansas [bill] looks protective of student journalists because coverage [under the bill] depends on functioning regularly as a journalist, not on who you work for or how you’re paid.'”

Even better. Students of journalism are still journalists. They shouldn’t be treated any differently than their professional counterparts. This will help stop colleges and universities from strong-arming students into doing something they know is ethically wrong, such as revealing a confidential source and notes from the reporting process.

Here’s some more of what the Citizen Media Law Project reported on the matter:

“In addition, Kansas legislators provided reporters with strong coverage in terms of what can be shielded from legal process.  The proposed bill provides a qualified privilege against identifying anonymous sources or disclosing ‘any previously undisclosed information’ obtained in the newsgathering process.  The bill defines ‘information’ broadly as:

any information gathered, received or processed by a journalist, whether or not such information is actually published, and whether or not related information has been disseminated, and includes, but is not limited to, all notes, outtakes, photographs, tapes and other recordings or other data of whatever sort that is gathered by a journalist in the process of gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public.

While offering this broad protection, the bill also ensures that state prosecutors and civil litigants are able to obtain information from journalists when absolutely necessary.  The bill sets out a three-part test that parties desiring information must meet. This three-part test not only requires ‘the party seeking to compel disclosure’ to demonstrate a pressing need for the requested information, but also permits a judge to engage in a balancing of First Amendment-type values that weigh in favor of protecting a journalist’s ability to keep confidential information and sources.

Beyond providing these broad protections, the bill backs them up with practical bite. If someone demands information from a reporter without a ‘reasonable basis’ for doing so, the demanding party could be forced to pay the journalist’s attorney’s fees.  This provision, in particular, provides a disincentive to demand information obtained while a reporter was ‘acting as a journalist’ unless it is truly necessary to an ongoing legal battle.”

Wonderful! The thing that jumps out at me the most is the provision saying someone trying to wrongly get information from a reporter might have to pay for the reporter’s attorney’s fees.

This is a great time for Kansas and Kansas journalists. All that remains is to get a national Shield Law passed.

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About toddvogts 830 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.