Government & Politics

Shield law for reporters possible

TOPEKA — A western Kansas newspaper's fight against a prosecutor who has subpoenaed a reporter twice could boost efforts to enact a state shield law for journalists, key legislators said Monday.

Most lawmakers have shown little interest in recent years in giving reporters, editors and publishers legal protection from being forced to turn over their notes or identify anonymous sources, despite the interest of two top Senate leaders.

Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, and Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, introduced a proposed shield law last year. It remains stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ford County Attorney Terry Malone is trying to force Dodge City Globe reporter Claire O'Brien to hand over notes from a jailhouse interview with a man charged with second-degree murder. Malone also is trying to get her to divulge the identity of a confidential source who suggested the man acted in self-defense.

O'Brien has refused to do either.

The O'Brien case is "a glaring example of why we need this law," Hensley said.

"This is a case in our own backyard that shows this is not just an academic discussion," Schmidt said.

Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of a subpoena for O'Brien's notes, but the next day, she received a subpoena to appear at the defendant's trial as a witness.

"I think it's a subject that the Legislature needs to look at periodically, and this gives us a good opportunity," said Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, chairman of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.

The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee would protect journalists from being forced to disclose information they have gathered.

A party in a court case would have to present "clear and convincing" evidence to a judge in a closed hearing that the information is relevant, can't be obtained by other means and is of "overriding interest" and "necessary to secure the interests of justice."

A 1978 Kansas Supreme Court decision said reporters are protected only if the information being sought isn't relevant to an accused criminal's defense.

"I think this calls attention to exactly what we've been talking about," said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. "Reporters are vulnerable and need protection."

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 last year against advancing the bill, with critics suggesting it wasn't needed. Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, an attorney, still isn't convinced, even with O'Brien's case.

"We've had very few instances in Kansas history where a party to litigation has attempted to coerce the identity of sources out of a reporter," Vratil said. "I admit there are a handful in the history of the state, but I don't think that justifies a shield law."