Florida Senate takes steps to shield reporters

Monday, April 27, 1998

A measure passed last week by Florida's Senate would give journalists a “qualified privilege” from being forced to disclose confidential information or from having to testify in court.

The shield law proposal, which moved unanimously through the Senate Governmental Oversight and Reform Committee, passed the Senate on Thursday by a 31-8 vote. The measure is now before the House.

Considering the number of measures introduced in the Legislature during the current session affecting access to meetings and public records, House Bill 71 “may be the highlight of the session,” said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.

Petersen said: “We've worked a lot in tracking [the shield law] and working with [its backers] trying to address concerns of the Legislature and the governor.”

The legislation gives journalists a “qualified privilege” not to have to disclose information, including the identity of sources, while “actively gathering news.”

Petersen said that after seeking absolute privilege in shield law proposals of the past, supporters this time are seeking only qualified privilege.

The qualified privilege does not apply if the journalist has been an eyewitness to a crime.

The shield law also does not mean that a journalist can never be called to testify. But a

prosecutor or other person who seeks information from a journalist would have to

make a “clear and specific showing” that the information could not be obtained

from alternative sources and that a “compelling interest exists” for requiring disclosure of the information.

Last year, Petersen said, the effort never made it out of a Senate committee, and it faced a number of problems in the House. “There has been complete and total frustration,” she said.

Five years ago a shield law made it through the Legislature only to be vetoed by the governor.

Petersen predicts that this year's shield law will be signed by Gov. Lawton Chiles if passed by the House.

“We're asking the governor to sign it into law. We have worked closely with the governor's office in addressing their concerns,” she said.

Petersen said the only surprise shield law supporters have received this year occurred during Thursday's Senate vote.

Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Cape Coral, urged his colleagues to join him in opposing what he called “bad, special interest” legislation.

Dudley's last-minute opposition was “a startling thing,” Petersen says. “I'm not sure why someone who is running for attorney general would do something like that in an election year. It was very interesting considering the fact that he agreed that the bill addressed all of his previous concerns.”

The St. Petersburg Times quoted Dudley as saying: “I thought long and hard about this bill. It's probably a politically stupid thing to do for someone running for statewide office who is going to have to appear before all these editorial boards, but … no one else is given this kind of shield.”

Bill sponsor, Sen. Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole, disagreed. He assured colleagues that many other states have similar shield laws and that subpoenas of journalists have been on the rise. “We don't want the press to be the first person the prosecutors, the

defendants and the plaintiffs turn to,” he said.

A House vote is expected before the legislative session ends Friday.