N.C. House votes to shield journalists from testifying in court

Tuesday, June 29, 1999

The North Carolina House voted last week to extend greater protection to journalists seeking immunity from testifying in court.

Sponsored by state Rep. George W. Miller Jr., D-Durham, the proposed “shield law” would make obtaining subpoenas for journalists' testimony more difficult through the establishment of a three-part test, similar to protections already in place in 30 states.

Those seeking the testimony of a journalist would have to prove that the testimony:

  • Was highly relevant to their case.
  • Cannot be obtained from another source.
  • Is essential to the defense of the person on whose behalf the testimony is sought.

The North Carolina Press Association sought the legislation in light of recent cases in which local courts had refused to quash subpoenas issued against journalists. Several of those cases await ruling in the Supreme Court.

“Reporters have been in very vulnerable position for about a year,” Teri Saylor, executive director of the NCPA, said. “Rather than wait on the Supreme Court rulings, we decided that we would go ahead and try to pass a shield law.”

Miller says that the bill is necessary to align North Carolina law with federal court practice.

However, several Republicans argued that the bill created unwarranted privileges for journalists.

“This isn't about First Amendment protections; this is about dollars,” said state Rep. Sam Ellis, R-Wake. “This is about having to respond as every other citizen of the world has to do to help justice. I can see where it would be a nuisance, but it is a necessary nuisance.”

But the bill's sponsor in the Senate, David Hoyle, D-Gastonia, disagreed, saying that the shield law would protect journalists from unnecessary interrogation.

“In the process of journalists doing their work, they shouldn't have to be the first in line to testify just because they're the easiest source to get to,” Hoyle said.

The bill was tentatively approved in the House on June 21 by a vote of 73-37; however, several lawmakers' concerns regarding the role of journalists as eyewitnesses to crimes delayed final passage.

The amended version of the bill, which passed June 23, states that “a journalist has no privilege against disclosure of any information, document, or item obtained as the result of the journalist's eyewitness observations of criminal or tortious conduct.”

The Senate passed its own version of the shield law in April, and was scheduled to vote today on the House changes. If the Senate approves the changes, the bill will head to the governor. Then if the governor signs the bill, North Carolina will become the 31st state to enact a shield law extending greater First Amendment protection to journalists.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.