Washington State needs a journalists' shield law

[Daily Columbian]

Encouraging news emerged this week from Olympia. The Legislature might be more inclined to pass a "shield law" that would allow reporters to protect confidential sources without threat of action by the courts.

In 2006 the Legislature was much inclined to pass such a crucial bill, but did not. The House overwhelming approved (87-11) Attorney General Rob McKenna's carefully written measure. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved it 6-3. But because opposing sides could not agree on amendments, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, refused to bring the bill to a vote.

A key figure is Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, one of the three members of last year's Senate Judiciary Committee who opposed a shield law. After hearing testimony Tuesday, Weinstein changed his mind and said he supports a shield law: "There's no reason to put reporters in fear of going to jail for doing their job."

We wish Weinstein had seen the light last year, but we're glad he's come around this year. This issue is about much more than reporters' right to work free of legal threat; it's about the public's right to know, especially about government, especially when whistle-blowers are willing to come forward, if kept anonymous. That right is so crucial, 32 states have enacted shield laws, and Congress is considering a federal shield law.

And that right is so crucial that it's recognized by both Republicans, including McKenna (whose hard work on this issue is highly commendable), and Democrats, including Gov. Chris Gregoire.

At Tuesday's hearing, Susannah Frame, a reporter with KING-TV in Seattle, explained how a whistle-blower helped her break a story about a security flaw at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The story led to an investigation by the Port of Seattle, which found that 400 badges of former workers were still active. "I think that worked to the public good," Frame said. "That story would not have happened without this guy, who was really scared. ? Believe me, the port wanted me to tell them who he was."

If not shielded from legal threat, this system of public enlightenment -- vital in a free society -- breaks down, public ignorance prevails and wrongdoing remains hidden.

That's why reporters need the same exemption from testifying in court that is given spouses, attorneys, clergy and police officers. Let whistles be blown, and let the sun shine bright enough to enlighten the public.

article originally published at http://www.columbian.com/opinion/news/01122007news92199.cfm.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey