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Protecting journalists and sources

Most First Amendment advocates have mixed feelings about "shield laws" to protect journalists from being compelled by the courts to divulge their sources or their notes. What legislatures give, they can also take away. And some states' shield laws have, intentionally or not, actually stripped away some protections that journalists had previously been granted by the courts.

However, in the absence of clear-cut judicial precedent, the shield law approved by both houses of the Legislature would provide important protections for journalists and their sources. Gov. Lawton Chiles, who vetoed similar legislation five years ago, should sign this bill. The new legislation contains explicit language that eliminates ambiguities in the 1993 law. And the need for such a law has become clearer in the past five years, as more and more prosecutors and defense attorneys have subpoenaed journalists, seeking to compel them to provide information that could be obtained from other sources.

The legislation does not provide a blanket privilege for journalists. Instead, it establishes a three-part test: The information sought must be relevant, the court must have no other way of obtaining it, and there must be a "compelling" reason to force the reporter to testify. The bill would provide no special protection to journalists who are eyewitnesses to a crime.

The conditions are consistent with those contained in a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court opin-

ion that established limited protections for journalists and their sources. However, those protections have been eroded by subsequent state rulings, and the current Rehnquist court cannot be relied upon to reinforce them.

In that atmosphere, the need for legislative action becomes more clear-cut. These are not hypothetical concerns. In 1996, Miami Herald reporter David Kidwell was jailed for 15 days for refusing to turn over information stemming from a jail-house interview with convicted murderer John Zile. Kidwell's case is pending before the state Supreme Court, and he may yet be forced to return to jail.

In 1993, Stuart News reporter Tim Roche, who later worked for the Times, served 18 days in jail for refusing to divulge the identity of a confidential source in a child custody case. In neither case did the courts establish a compelling need for the information, nor did they establish that the information could not have been gathered through other means.

Effective shield laws do not protect only journalists; they safeguard our democratic system. Sources with reliable information about government fraud, corporate wrongdoing or other criminal activity should be assured that they can talk to journalists in confidence. Stripping away that protection is an invitation to corruption. The governor should not strain to find fault with a well-crafted law that serves the interests of journalists, their sources and all other Floridians.