Maine journalists’ organizations are pressing for a state law that would put Maine among more than two dozen states that protect reporters from having to reveal confidential sources.

A bill whose final version has yet to be finalized by the Judiciary Committee would give journalists greater protection when they report on illegal or improper activities through the use of confidential sources.

It also would protect people who come forward to shed light on improper or illegal activities at the risk of their own livelihood or safety, said the sponsor, Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland. The legislation closely follows a model law from the national Media Rights Center.

The Maine Press Association, the Maine Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Maine Association of Broadcasters joined individual journalists who spoke in favor of the proposed “shield law” during a public hearing.

By the end of last week, the committee’s majority had embraced a version that narrowed the scope of the original bill by only shielding reporters from having to reveal information from confidential sources and the identities of confidential sources.

Shield laws have been adopted by more than 30 other states and the District of Columbia, according to Tony Ronzio, editorial page editor of the Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston and Maine Press Association board member.

Ronzio said Maine’s proposed shield law simply codifies what’s generally understood by Maine common law. “It lays out conditions, and exceptions, when journalists would be compelled to disclose confidential information,” he said.

Ronzio said that while the press association is disappointed the committee removed protection of material from non-condidential sources, it still supports the legislation.

Maine Association of Broadcasters President Suzanne Goucher warned that the absence of protections for journalists will turn them into a de facto investigative arm of law enforcement agencies when they subpoena reporters’ notes, video out takes and other unpublished material.

“If reporters can’t ensure a confidential source’s identity, the public will never receive information on critical public safety, public policy and corporate governance matters,” Goucher told legislators.

Supporters of Hinck’s bill say it would not cover a reporter if the material sought by authorities was not widely available and was important to the public interest or critical in a court case.

The measure is not supported by all journalists, Ronzio acknowledged. Some journalists believe that existing press freedom protections already protect journalists from having to reveal confidences.

Goucher pointed to court rulings that say reporters do not enjoy unlimited protections from having their notes seized, although the Supreme Court has given states the go-ahead to pass shield laws.

A Judiciary Committee opponent of the Maine bill, Rep. Lawrence Jacobsen, said he believes special protections as proposed in the bill can be abused.

“Sometimes it’s used for publicity. It’s good press,” said Jacobsen, R-Waterboro.

“If somebody has information, especially in this day and age with terrorism, it might be very detrimental if something was withheld,” Jacobsen said.

A federal shield law is also being considered. Last October, the U.S. House passed a bill that would back the right of reporters to protect the confidentiality of sources in most federal court cases. The full Senate has not yet acted on a similar measure.

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