Thursday, June 14, 2007

Legislative Panel Debates Mass. Shield Law

One fact seemed clear after Tuesday's hearing on a proposed Massachusetts shield law -- the bill is unlikely to pass in its present form. That is bad news for the media coalition pushing for the law (of which I am part), because the bill as filed would be one of the strongest shield laws in the nation. But just how bad the news might be would depend on just how much its language would be compromised. The ultimate question could end up becoming: Is a weak shield law better than no shield law at all?

In his piece for The Republican, reporter Dan Ring does a good job capturing what happened at the hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The committee's House co-chair, Rep. Eugene L. O'Flaherty, came to the hearing having clearly done his research on shield laws generally. He made clear that he has a number of concerns with the bill, among them its potential for protecting individuals who reveal trade secrets. The Senate co-chair, Sen. Robert S. Creedon, expressed concern over the bill's coverage of bloggers, who he referred to as "the loosest of loose cannons." But Creedon also expressed respect for and appreciation of the role of the news media and seemed willing to see a shield law go through in modified form.

Seven witnesses testified with barely a question from the committee: Blue Cross Blue Shield Executive Vice President Peter Meade; journalists Jim Taricani, Susan Wornick and Natalie Jacobson; Boston Globe Senior Vice President Al Larkin; NECN Vice President of News Charles Kravetz; and WBUR General Manager Paul La Camera. Then three witnesses came up as a panel: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Lucy Dalglish, Boston College Law Professor Mary-Rose Papandrea and Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. At that point, O'Flaherty began to question them intensely about various aspects of the bill. The "jousting" (as Ring called it) continued for some time, even after Jones had to leave for an appointment elsewhere. The State House News Service described it this way:
"What began Tuesday morning as a series of pleas from news executives and experts before a seemingly incurious Judiciary Committee to protect journalists from revealing confidential sources, quickly escalated into a tug of war with the committee's chairman - a lawyer - over how best to balance freedom of the press with the judicial branch's right to demand information."
Dalglish, of course, knows this issue inside out and is a veteran of speaking about it in Congress and other state legislatures. Papandrea recently published a law review article on the reporter's privilege and is likewise thoroughly well versed in the law. Their expertise only underscored how well prepared O'Flaherty was -- his questions and comebacks showed that he'd done his homework.

O'Flaherty never said he opposed the bill outright. Some attendees conjectured that he would not have prepared so thoroughly if he thought the bill would go nowhere. And Dalglish suggested that many of his concerns could be addressed through modifications to the bill. It remains to be seen what those modifications might be and whether the bill, even if it makes it out of this committee, will ultimately become law.

Two other reports:

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