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Proposals to allow reporters to keep their sources secret were questioned by senators

February 21, 2006
By: Meghan Maskery
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Proposals to let journalists keep their sources secret ran into questioning from Missouri's Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sens. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, and Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, have filed similar bills that would protect reporters from having to disclose their sources in court.

The committee chair, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, said the wording of the bills needed to be clarified to ensure courts uniformly apply the proposed law.

He said the bills offer "very general admonitions" and that there is "not a whole lot of guidance here." But he also told the senators, "You guys have obviously put your finger on an issue of some interest to us."

Under the bills, a state court would be prohibited from forcing a journalist to disclose a source unless authorities could prove all other avenues for finding the information had been exhausted or the court decided disclosure was necessary to protect the public interest.

Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, and a former prosecutor, asked whether reporters would be able to hide behind the shield law to get out of testifying in libel cases.

Crowell answered that the court maintains its ability to force journalists to disclose sources under his bill after the proper steps have been taken.

Columbia columnist and radio talk show host, Tony Messenger, told the senators that he knows firsthand that reporters get subpoenaed to testify in court matters not related to national security.

"A few months ago, I would have been opposed to shield law legislation before I myself was subpoenaed and could have used the legislation to save the state and my employer a lot of time and money," Messenger said.

Messenger, a columnist for the Columbia Daily Tribune, was subpoenaed to testify by a Boone County Public Defender in the case of Shawan Daniels after he wrote a column based on interviews with Daniels and an anonymous source.

Daniels was charged with second-degree murder after the death of 72-year-old Earlene Bradshaw which prosecutors charged was caused by Daniels.

Daniels pled guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree assault and Messenger did not have to disclose the anonymous source he had interviewed about the case.

"It's just become easier for various different entities to just pull a reporter or a news organization and their notes and their sources into court to try to divulge information that a certain party may want," Graham said.

The law would cover anyone who provides information through print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic and electronic outlets,and includes everything from pamphlets to television broadcasts.

Crowell said he kept his definition of journalists all-inclusive because the types of media people use to get their news change through time.

But Koster said, "The notion that anything written in Popular Mechanics is more important than the search...for a conclusion in a courtroom strikes me as an imbalance worth considering."

According to an attorney who represents the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- Joseph Martineau -- 31 other states have some form of shield law protections for journalists. Martineau spoke in support of the bills on behalf of the Missouri Press Association.

Representatives from the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists and the Missouri Broadcasters Association also testified for the bills.

Brent Butler, speaking on behalf of the United Services Automobile Association, said the insurance company has concerns that sources would be able to give the press confidential information and then use the shield laws to escape repercussion.