TOPEKA — The Senate Judiciary Committee today advanced a bill to allow news reporters to shield confidential sources and protect unpublished information from disclosure to law enforcement in some circumstances.
Thirty-seven states have enacted so-called “shield laws” protecting journalists.
Proponents of shield laws contend that requiring journalists to disclose all their materials and sources infringes on the free-press rights granted by the First Amendment, intimidates potential whistleblowers and turns news outlets into an investigative arm of the government.
Opponents argue that exempting journalists from disclosure can hamper efforts by police and prosecutors to arrest and convict criminals.
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The Kansas law seeks to balance those competing interests.
The bill that passed out of committee Thursday would require lawyers seeking journalists’ confidential materials to show:
– The information sought is relevant to the case at issue.
– The information could not, after exercising due diligence, be obtained by other means.
– The information would be admissible in court and that its value in the case “outweighs any harm to the free dissemination of information to the public through the activities of journalists.”
On Wednesday, the committee amended the bill to establish that the burden of proof under the three-part test would be the “preponderance of evidence,” an easier standard to meet than the “clear and compelling” burden initially proposed.
The committee also decided to allow judges to award legal fees to either side if litigants “had no reasonable basis” to either demand or oppose disclosure of journalists’ information.
Representatives of the Kansas Press Association and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters said they were pleased the bill, now numbered House Bill 2585, made it through the committee, clearing the way for a Senate floor vote.
Kent Cornish, executive director of the broadcasters’ association, said the bill should cut down on “fishing expeditions” by lawyers who demand that TV stations turn over all the footage they shoot at news scenes.
Both he and Rich Gannon, the lobbyist for the press association, said they didn’t have a problem with the changes the committee made.
Gannon said it’s difficult to conceive a situation where the government could obtain reimbursement of its legal costs from a reporter who resisted turning over unpublished information.
“You’d have to think long and hard to figure that out,” he said.