Shield Law Legislation Clears First Hurdle
Senate Jurisprudence Committee approves watered-down version of SB 604
(Austin)// -- Legislation to enact a shield law for Texas journalists cleared its first hurdle, passing the a Senate committee today. Senate Bill 604 by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) was amended and approved by a vote of 4-0 by the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.
"With the face of journalism and law enforcement rapidly changing in the 21st century, it is time for Texas to enact a Shield Law to ensure journalists and their sources are protected in their job of keeping the public informed," said Ellis.
Thirty-one other states and the District of Columbia currently have some form or Shield law, including California, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and every single state bordering Texas. The United States Congress is currently debating legislation -- offered by two Republicans -- to enact a federal shield law. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed a shield law, saying:
"A free press is one of this country's major strengths and the right to protect the source of information is fundamental to a newsman in meeting his full responsibilities to the public he serves."
Senate Bill 604 would take Reagan's words and make them true in Texas.
Today there is essentially no state or federal constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify, turn over reporters notes or otherwise participate in a criminal case in the state of Texas. Ideally the First Amendment would be such a shield, but the courts have largely taken away the understood privilege of the press to protect whistleblowers. The need to protect the confidentiality of sources is often fundamental to a reporter's job.
"Thirty-one other states and the District of Columbia have enacted Shield laws to protect the free flow of information, and it is time for Texas to do the same. As a longtime advocate of such legislation, I believe SB 604 represents a good starting point in the discussion of how best to protect journalists as they do their jobs. If Alabama can make this work, so can we."
SB 604 is modeled on the 1999 North Carolina shield law, the most recently passed shield law in the country. The Senate Jurisprudence Committee, however, added language that will severely weaken the proposed shield law by gutting important protections for confidential sources.
"This is the just first step in the process," said Ellis. "At first blush, it appears to be a step back, but I can assure you that I will work to improve and strengthen this bill on the Senate floor. If I cannot strengthen this bill to make it a true shield for sources and information-- and not a sieve -- I will thank the members for the use of the hall and spend the next two years convincing my colleagues why it is important to do this right."