JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation creating a so-called media “shield law” has friends in high places — but not the right places.
For at least the third straight year, a bill has been filed that would demand a court order before requiring reporters to divulge their confidential sources or turn over notes and video that hasn’t been aired.
And it’s again unlikely to pass.
It’s a big stumble for an idea that last year had a chance to become law after it was steered into a Senate committee with a friendly chairman. That bill died without ever being debated by the full Senate.
This year, supporters again found a supportive chairman, something that’s normally one of the keys to passing legislation. But when it comes to the media shield law, support from powerful lawmakers hasn’t been much help.
Shield law supporters argue that some lawyers have essentially used reporters as personal investigators by issuing subpoenas for information that could be discovered through other methods.
Most states have a shield law, and Congress is considering a proposal that would cover the federal courts. The debate about lawyers and grand juries seeking to make reporters testify about their sources or notes has picked up in recent years after high-profile cases in which journalists elected to serve jail time rather than cooperate.
Joe Martineau, an attorney who represents several newspapers and TV stations, said Missouri law is unclear about when journalists can be ordered to testify. He called the proposed shield law “an attempt to clarify existing court rulings.”
In past years, bills creating a shield law have been filed by Senate and House committee chairmen and even prompted an endorsement from House Speaker Rod Jetton in 2006.
But a year after sailing through the House with just five dissenting votes, the measure faces an uphill battle just to get out of the House committee that’s led by the bill’s sponsor.
Rep. Tim Jones, a lawyer from Eureka, said his version of the shield law is a “reasonable and modest proposal.” But he stands alone among the other Republicans on his eight-member committee.
The other four Republicans are either among the five House members who voted against the shield law last year or were vocal in their criticism of the idea during a hearing earlier this month.
Rep. Michael Parson said legislation that makes it harder to compel journalists to testify or to turn over unpublished materials seems hypocritical. The former Polk County sheriff said police departments, for example, have to turn over information when someone requests it under the state Sunshine Law.
“When you get down to it, we’re trying to do exactly what they’re trying to do: We’re trying to protect somebody,” said Parson, R-Bolivar. “I don’t see a difference — private or public — when you’re trying to protect somebody.”
The concentration of Republican shield law critics in one committee has effectively neutralized the endorsement of the panel’s chairman.
To move the bill to the next step, Jones must persuade one of his fellow Republican critics to flip — or strategically skip one of the committee’s meetings. He also must corral the support of the committee’s three Democrats.
Even that might not accomplish much, because one of the Republican critics on Jones’ panel has his own, more powerful committee that signs off on all legislation before it is cleared for floor debate.
While Rep. Shannon Cooper said he likes his local newspaper editor, he doesn’t approve of the behavior of many Missouri journalists, who he said want to be treated differently than the people they cover.
“You are your own worst enemy, and I don’t see this bill going anywhere because of the behavior of a select few journalists,” said Cooper, R-Clinton.
Given their opposition, several lawmakers already have clarified when they think reporters should have to provide information: Whenever the court wants it.