Florida Senate takes up bill protecting journalists’ sources

Wednesday, March 25, 1998

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — It would become more difficult to force a reporter to disclose confidential sources or testify in court under a bill sent Tuesday to the Senate floor.

“Those people are professionals at gathering facts,” said Florida State University President Sandy D’Alemberte, a supporter of the bill. “If you don’t pass this legislation … you’re going to find lawyers simply using reporters of all kinds to do their investigations for them.”

The bill would put Florida in line with the federal government’s shield law for reporters, established by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

That decision granted reporters a limited right against having to reveal confidential sources or testify.

For a judge to require a reporter to reveal a source or to testify, three specific requirements have to be met: the information must be relevant to an ongoing case, the court must have no other way of getting the information and there must be a compelling interest for disclosure of the information.

Florida would become the 30th state to enact some type of reporter’s privilege. Seven states give journalists absolute immunity from testifying or revealing sources.

Last June, a state appeals court affirmed a contempt of court conviction that sent a newspaper reporter to jail in 1996 for refusing to answer questions about an interview with a murder suspect.

Miami Herald reporter David Kidwell, 36, was imprisoned for 15 days for refusing to turn over information he gathered during a jailhouse interview with John Zile, the man convicted of first-degree murder of his 7-year-old stepdaughter, Christina Holt.

The bill (SB 150), sponsored by Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, moved unanimously through the Senate Governmental Oversight and Reform Committee.

“Freedom of the press is essential to the workings of a government,” he said. “So many times the press gets involved in legal issues (that) we need to free them up to do their jobs.”

The only opposition to the plan came from attorney Vincent Howard, who was concerned about the ability a reporter has to waive the shield law to one party, such as an prosecutor, then duck back behind it when defense attorneys want information.

Howard said after the meeting that he was confident any differences could be ironed out. A similar bill was sent to the House floor last Thursday.

“The bill brings Florida back in line with the traditions of access and being a vibrant state for the media,” said David Bralow, an attorney for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. “It’s the right thing at the right time.”