At Issue: Shield law for journalists and whistleblowers

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Posted by on June 28, 2009 at 16:09:32:

by Jason Stein, State Journal staff

In a Nutshell

Journalists and whistleblowers who help uncover wrongdoing would receive added protection under a bill introduced last week.

The bill introduced in the Senate would give journalists total protection from having to divulge in court the identity of confidential sources who expose problems in business or government.

The case for it

“It’s important that people be able to contact the media to report government malfeasance. We’ve seen this everywhere from Watergate to the (Wisconsin legislative) caucus scandal,” said Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, who is working on a companion bill in the Assembly.

More than 30 other states have passed similar protections, Parisi said. The bill has the support of media groups such as the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

Court decisions in Wisconsin have already laid out a limited protection for journalists from divulging confidential sources. But a prosecutor, defense attorney or party in a lawsuit can still subpoena a journalist and successfully require him or her to name a source if doing so could yield important information for the case and there is no other way to get the information.
A journalist who refuses to release the name could be sent to jail for contempt of court.

A reporter “can’t promise confidentiality in this state unless you’re willing to go to jail if push comes to shove,” said media attorney Bob Dreps of Madison, who added he’s not aware of such a case in Wisconsin.

Dreps said the proposal would apply in cases where a confidential source may have passed along a document that was stolen or improperly obtained.

The case against it

Langlade County district attorney Ralph Uttke said he is concerned the bill could keep law enforcement from learning vital information in cases where people are at risk of harm.

To have an absolute privilege would potentially create some effects on public safety,” Uttke said. “One thing I’ve learned as a lawyer is that absolutes are dangerous.”

Dane County district attorney Brian Blanchard supports the bill because it “recognizes the incredible value of the First Amendment to the public.” But he said the bill could be improved by clarifying that a person would have to be working as a journalist at the time he or she learned a whistleblower’s identity.

To get involved

The bill has been referred to the Senate Health and Privacy Committee chaired by Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, who can be reached by calling (608) 266-6670.

To contact your lawmaker to oppose or support the bill, use the legislative hot line, which is staffed from 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays; call 800-362-9472 or 608-266-9960. To send an e-mail, log onto the Legislature’s Web page at , select Senate or Assembly, and follow the link to the e-mail directory.

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