Normally, if you are ordered to testify in court you have no choice. You must comply or face being held in contempt of court. Exceptions to this obligation are called privileges. You may have heard of attorney-client privilege, which means an attorney can't be made to testify against his client about confidential communications in most cases. In some states, reporters also have the privilege to protect their sources under shield laws.
What Are Shield Laws for Reporters?
Shield laws are statutes that protect communications between news reporters and their sources. Under a shield law, these communications are confidential and privileged, meaning they cannot be testified to in court. Some states define a reporter as someone who is employed by a newspaper, communicates via news media or whose communication falls under the general category of news, while other states have broader statutes covering books, magazine articles, pamphlets, television and radio broadcasts.
Depending on the state, online reporters are not always protected by shield laws. Alabama's shield law is restricted to reporters in traditional media outlets, while Nebraska's shield law can be applied to online media. In states that have no shield laws, many reporters have been found in contempt of court and given jail sentences for refusing to name sources or reveal information collected confidentially.
Is There a Federal Shield Law?
There is no federal shield law because the U.S. Supreme Court has not interpreted the First Amendment as mandating a new privilege for reporters. The Supreme Court stated that a reporter's privilege should not take priority over the compelling public interest in law enforcement and effective grand jury proceedings. However, most states have shield laws based on the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.
Shield Law Examples
Some states give reporters an absolute privilege or a qualified privilege. Alabama's shield law offers absolute reporter privilege, making a "news-gathering person" exempt from disclosing sources in any trial or before any court. On the other hand, Florida's shield law restricts a reporter's privilege in certain circumstances. In this state, privilege does not apply to eyewitness observations, physical evidence, or visual and audio recordings of crimes.
In some states, reporters can claim a privilege based on common law. In 1982, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled that case law allows reporters to claim a privilege in civil suits. In 1988, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the state constitution affords privilege t0 reporters’ confidential and nonconfidential materials.
A shield law is a state statute that gives reporters the right to refuse to testify in court about confidential or unpublished information.