Staff editorial: Utah citizens need reporter shield law
While some people think that reporters in Utah have an immunity from prosecution for holding back privileged information from law enforcement or justice officials, the fact is that we don't.
Some in government agencies might think this is a good thing; but it isn't. Without the ability to protect sources, news reporters, whether they be print or broadcast, could lose valuable aides to exposing government corruption, white collar crime or many other kinds of information that could lead to showing up bad guys.
A lot of people argue that in states where shield laws are powerful, reporters could lay waste to efforts to prevent terrorism or other types of criminal acts. It's funny but in times of stress and national emergency it is the tendency of many to try and dismantle the constitution, and take away the presses right to investigate freely anything at all and for the public to know about it.
While 47 other states in the union grant some form of protection to journalists who try to do their jobs and keep from revealing sources, Utah is one of the three that does not. And there is no federal laws covering this situation, as many think. While congress is considering it, they have not acted.
Utah needs to adopt a shield law that will give news people certain kinds of guarantees that they will not have to go to jail to keep from revealing their sources. At the present the Utah Supreme Court is considering Rule 509 and a decision on it will be made in mid-January. The rule, which has been developed by an advisory committee to the court could provide the protection journalists need.
But why is this important to you the reader?
It would assure that sources, such as whistleblowers, would have their identities and possibly their lives protected if they give information to the news media. Without this rule, fears could affect many kinds of information that public should have about government corruption. For some the fact their name might be revealed puts them in a place where they could lose their jobs, their ability to get a job and even could create family problems for them. In fact in some cases such powerful forces can be at work here, the sources own life may be threatened.
Without a reporter's privilege, there is a chilling effect on whistleblowers and others who would disclose wrongdoing to news reporters. In that way it will serve the public interest. A reporter's privilege does not place journalists above the law, but instead it ensures an independent press that is a check and balance on government. Journalists must be able to remain independent, so that they can maintain their traditional role as neutral watchdogs and objective observers. When reporters are called into court to testify for or against a party, their credibility is harmed. Potential sources come to see them as agents of the state, or supporters of criminal defendants, or as advocates for one side or the other in civil disputes. In the end, sources are less likely to talk to journalists when there is no legal protection.
Now what is being proposed is not cut and dried. It has provisions in it that would create a situation where if the information a reporter has is of importance in saving lives or preventing action by others that could be detrimental to the good of all citizens. They could be forced to reveal the details. Unpublished, non-confidential news gathering material such as outtakes, notes, photographs, etc., also are protected by the proposed rule, subject to the balancing test that the Utah federal and state courts have been using for the past 20 years. Therefore, in a case-by-case basis a judge can determine whether "the free flow of information to news reporters outweighs the need for disclosure."
The rule, as proposed, represents the work of many sincere and earnest people in not only the professions of journalism, the law and law enforcement, but also the advisory committee and the judiciary. Through this process, an advisory committee became intimately familiar with the shield laws of other states and the District of Columbia.
If adopted by the Utah Supreme Court, the state's rule will be a model of reporter's shield laws in the nation.
Citizens can make comments about the rule to the Utah Supreme Court until Jan. 22, 2008. Citizens should take a stand on this issue and give their input. That can be done by logging onto the Internet and visiting http://utahcourts.notlong.com.
Citizens deserve an open and transparent government; they also deserve an unencumbered press. Now is one of the chances you have of guaranteeing it.