Keoni Alvarez
Keoni Alvarez

Native Hawaiian Filmmaker Asks Lawmakers to Extend Journalism Shield Bill

A Native Hawaiian filmmaker who was one of the first non-traditional journalists to use Hawaii’s 2008 journalism shield law to protect his work, is asking Hawaii lawmakers to make permanent the journalism shield law before it sunsets this year.

Keoni Kealoha Alvarez, president of Hawaiian Island Productions, is an independent filmmaker producing a historical documentary on native Hawaiian history and ancient burials in Haena on Kauai that will air on PBS in 2014.

After Kauai businessman Joseph Brescia subpoenaed Alvarez’s films, hard drives, unpublished notes and other correspondence in what Alvarez called a “fishing expedition”, the American Civil Liberties Union and local attorney Jim Bickerton used Hawaii’s Journalism Shield Bill to protect his unpublished work and sources.

Brescia, who wanted to building a home on Naue Point in Haena where 30 Hawaiian graves had been discovered, was blocked from doing so by the county. But he subsequently filed a lawsuit against 17 protesters who he claimed had trespassed to demonstrate on his property and also delayed construction of his home and cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Brescia wanted a copy of Alvarez’s films of the protest as evidence for his case.

Fifth Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Watanabe sided with Alvarez on September 2, 2009. As an outside party not involved in the lawsuit, the journalism shield bill protected Alvarez from having to turn over his work to Brescia.

Bickerton issued a statement on behalf of Alvarez, saying:  “With this decision, the media shield law can now be confidently asserted by journalists seeking to protect their work. The judge ruled that the media shield law means what it says — journalists can protect their confidential sources and can’t be forced to reveal their unpublished information.”

The Society of Professional Journalists brought Alvarez from Kauai to Oahu on Monday to meet with journalists to share his story. Alvarez also spoke to Senators at the capitol on Tuesday in hopes legislators would extend the five-year-old journalism shield bill before it sunsets this year.

Alvarez said as an independent filmmaker on a low budget production it was intimidating to have Brescia try to obtain all of his unpublished materials through an extensive subpoena. He disclosed that he had no intention of turning over what amounted to confidential communications, even if the judge ruled against him, and would have rather burned the materials to protect his sources and gone to prison than betray their trust.

The journalism shield bill extension, moving forward in House Bill 622, passed the House in January with amendments made by House Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads. Journalists were disappointed with his amendments, because they believe the law is working and hoped it would remain untouched. However, they looked forward to vetting the bill in the Senate.

Senate Judiciary and Labor Chair Clayton Hee helped pass the first extension of the journalism shield bill two years ago before the 2008 law would sunset, but he also included a sunset date instead of making the law permanent so the law could be studied.

The attorney general’s office has suggested changes to the law that would weaken it, which journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists and the ACLU oppose.  Hee has not yet scheduled a hearing on HB 622, but must pass the bill out of his committee by April 4 or it will die.

ACLU Attorney Laurie Temple, who testified in favor of the bill in the House, told lawmakers at the January 29 committee hearing that freedom of the press promotes speech and self-governance for all Americans.

“Investigative reporting helps ensure that our government is open to public scrutiny. Liberty is lost without a free and independent press,” Temple said.

A “vibrant and meaningful” reporters’ shield will ensure that journalists continue to have the tools they need to hold the government accountable to the people, Temple said, adding it also will allow the press to continue to inform the public about substantial risks to health and safety without fear of government persecution.

The law would also allow journalists to maintain independence without access to information from confidential sources, Temple said.

“The Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers became public only after informants were assured anonymity. More recently, confidential sources broke stories about illegal government programs including torture, warrantless wiretapping, kidnapping, and detention. In retaliation, the government has used subpoenas to intimidate journalists into revealing sources and jailed them if they declined to name names. The government’s efforts to silence dissent are facilitated by the lack of a journalist’s privilege from identifying confidential sources,” Temple said.

Forty-nine states and D.C. recognize some form of reporters’ privilege. Hawaii’s law is considered by journalism groups across the country as one of the nation’s most progressive because it protects both traditional and non-traditional journalists and their unpublished materials and sources in civil cases.

The law was first passed in 2008 in part to help Hawaii Reporter defend itself in a similar situation.

Hawaii Reporter’s published and unpublished materials and correspondence records were subpoenaed in 2008 by retired auto dealer James Pflueger who was accused of causing the deaths of 7 people when his dam breached in March 2006 by his illegal grading.

Pflueger was also charged criminally by the attorney general on 7 counts of manslaughter and one count of reckless endangerment. Those charges are still pending.

MORE ON THE WEB

See an interview with First Amendment Attorney Jeff Portnoy on Hawaii’s Journalism Shield bill

 

Taxpayers Will Cover $26.6 Million to Settle Lawsuits Against the State

Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind

A bill moving through the state Legislature would have state taxpayers paying $26.6 million to cover lawsuit settlements against the state.

  • That includes $14 million in back pay for substitute teachers in the public schools;
  • $5 million for children who were sexually assaulted at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind while they were on campus or on the school bus by a gang of students known as the Ringleaders. Some 35 special needs students are involved in the class action lawsuit against the state;
  • And another $3 million will go to an autistic child who won a lawsuit against the Hawaii state Department of Education.

The amount of the settlements due likely will increase by May.

Lawmakers Consider Honoring a Hawaii Legend   

On March 19, the Hawaii State Senate will hear Senate Concurrent Resolution 47, which would re-name a section of Coral Street adjacent to Lex Brodie’s Tire Company as “Lex Brodie Street.”

Lex Brodie

Lex Brodie, a well respected entrepreneur, political advisor and elected school board member, died earlier this year at his home on Kauai.

Lex Brodie’s son Sandy, who also lives on Kauai, said in an editorial today in Hawaii Reporter that his father’s many contributions to the City & County of Honolulu and the State of Hawaii justify honoring him by naming a street after him.

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