By Sonny Albarado – As president of the nation’s oldest and largest journalism advocacy group, the Society of Professional Journalists, I strongly urge you and your colleagues to retain Hawaii’s Shield Law by passing HB 622, Relating to Evidence, which removes the June 30, 2013 sunset provision of 2008’s Act 210.
At the same time, I urge you to reject two amendments added to HB 622 by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Those amendments gut the existing Shield Law, and the Society of Professional Journalists hopes you and your conferees block any attempts to pass the Senate’s version of the bill.
I understand that Sen. Clayton Hee invoked examples of inaccurate reporting by journalists in arguing for the Senate amendments. I respectfully suggest the senator is incorrect in casting the Shield Law as a matter of journalistic accuracy or inaccuracy.
Shield laws are not meant to ensure accuracy. They are meant to protect the public’s right to know what their government is doing in their name by giving journalists and their sources protection from prosecutors and plaintiffs attorneys who would rather rely on a journalist’s hard work than use their own investigative tools to support their cases.
Sen. Hee also made a point of noting that shield laws are often called “reporter’s privilege.” While it is true that legally such laws give journalists a privilege from being forced to reveal sources or turn over unpublished material, the true privilege belongs to the public, who suffer when government operates in secrecy.
Finally, it troubles me as the spokesman for SPJ that the Senate amendments seek to go back in time and recognize only those who work for traditional or established media as deserving of the shield’s protection.
As part of a group of SPJ leaders that has fought for passage of a national shield law, I can tell you that we prefer to define journalism as a conscious act committed by anyone who strives to seek truth and report it to a wider audience while adhering to the standards embodied in our Society’s Code of Ethics.
In other words, we tend to shun defining a “journalist” as someone who works for a specific organization, preferring instead to define journalism as something individuals do.
Hawaii now has one of the best shield laws in the country because it applies broadly to those who act as journalists as well as those who work in traditional journalistic settings.
The amendments made by the House Judiciary Committee reduce the instances of absolute privilege by creating conditions in which journalist’s sources regarding certain serious crimes and all civil litigation would not be protected. Again, this would have the effect of severely weakening the law.
For all these reasons, I and the Society ask you to renew the Shield Law and not weaken it.
Sonny Albarado is the President of the Society of Professional Journalists