Utah’s senators split on federal reporters’ shield law

12 09 2013

Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee found themselves on opposite sides of whether to grant journalists a qualified right to refuse to testify or hand over notes.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 Thursday to pass out the Free Flow of Information Act to the full Senate for consideration. Hatch voted in favor of the bill, which includes compromise language on who is a journalist, while Lee, the state’s junior senator voted no.

Media organizations have been pushing for a law allowing reporters to protect their sources and their notes since 2006. Forty-eight states, including Utah, have laws offering protection in varying degrees to journalists.

The sticking point on the federal law has been defining who is a journalist. Organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists have argued that rules should protect people who practice journalism. But. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attempted to push for language that would limit the protection to “real journalists.”

Compromise language approved Thursday extends the protection to freelance journalists and bloggers who have worked in traditional media in the past.

Attempts to contact Lee for comment were not successful.

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee leaning toward defining journalists strictly

5 09 2013

Sen. Mike Lee, who is threatening to shut down the federal government in order to kill Obamacare, might not be adverse to signing off on a Democrat’s idea.

Lee, R-Utah, may support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to limit protection under a proposed federal shield law to journalists who have either drawn a salary or had their work published in a recognized publication during a three-month period.

Brian Phillips, Lee’s spokesman, said Lee wants to see a narrowly drawn definition of a journalist, in order to prevent someone who merely dumps data on the Internet from being legally excused from testifying about it in court. He also said if Feinstein’s amendment can do that, Lee would support it.

Feinstein’s definition of a journalist, which she first drafted in 2010 after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning provided diplomatic cables and other documents related to the U.S. war in Iraq to the Wikileaks website. Feinstein’s push to keep bloggers and other amateur journalists from being protected by a shield law scuttled the bill then.

But it was resurrected this year after the Justice Department seized phone records from the Associated Press in an attempt to find the identity of the source of a story.

The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations are supporting the bill, which has had one hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Those groups believe the bill should offer protection from testifying or turning over notes to those who practice journalism, regardless of whether they draw a paycheck.

Phillips said Lee was also reviewing the bill to make sure that it adequately protected national security.

The bill allows the privilege to be waived if it relates to a national security issue, such as a probable terrorist attack.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said the bill’s supporters conceded the national security issue, which she said represents about 5 percent of the cases where reporters are hauled into court, in order to maintain protection in criminal and civil court cases, where it would do “enormous good.”

In 2007, freelance journalist Josh Wolf was released after spending more than six months behind bars because he would not turn over unpublished footage of rioting in San Francisco during the Group of Eight summit meeting. Wolf’s case was moved from state court, where he had the protection of California’s shield law, to federal court — where no shield law exists — because federal money paid for some of the police cars that were burned in the riot.

Dalglish, speaking at the Excellence in Journalism convention in Anaheim, Calif., Aug. 26, said many people are shocked to learn that there is no federal shield laws, unlike 48 states that have either a shield law or, in Utah’s case, a shield rule.





Betsy Ross, Chris Burbank win Utah Sunshine Awards, UTA gets a Black Hole

21 06 2013

Betsy Ross, former chairwoman of the State Records Committee was honored for her 18 years of advocating for open government.

The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave Ross one of its annual Sunshine Awards at a ceremony in Fort Douglas’ Officers’ Club Thursday.

Ross served on the board, which hears appeals under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), since its creation. She first served as the board’s legal counsel and then as the state auditor’s representative on the board. She did three stints as chairwoman.

During her tenure on the board, Ross was regarded as its institutional memory and conscience, always ensuring that those who appeared before the board received a fair hearing. She also used the position to push for greater access to public records.

When the Legislature railroaded through HB477, the 2011 bill that gutted GRAMA, Ross stood on the side of open-government advocates. In an op-ed column in The Salt Lake Tribune, Ross pointed out the ignorance that drove the bill, sponsored by then-Rep. John Dougall. She also invited lawmakers to come to a records committee hearing to see that their concerns about GRAMA were unwarranted.

No legislators ever took her up on the invitation.

Ross left the committee at the end of 2012, when she was fired by Dougall, the incoming auditor. Dougall claimed that she was let go because she was not spending enough time with legislators as the auditor’s director of legal affairs.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank also received a Sunshine Award for making the department’s daily watch logs available online. Previously, the logs would state that no significant events occurred, even on the night officers responded to the home of Uta von Schwedler, a University of Utah researcher who was found dead in her bathtub.

Von Schwedler, John Wall, has since been charged with her murder.

SPJ also awarded a Black Hole award to the Utah Transit Authority for its refusal to release information about former UTA CEO John Inglish’s retirement package. The Black Hole Award recognizes entities that egregiously block access to public information.

Eventually, UTA released the information, showing that Inglish’s pension was higher than what former U.S. presidents are paid.

The Utah SPJ chapter also noted that UTA continues to withhold crime data from The Salt Lake Tribune, despite a November 2012 order from the Records Committee to provide the information. The UTA appealed the committee’s ruling to 3rd District Court.

“Both of these instances reflect what seems to be UTA’s general stance that if they stonewall long enough when information is requested that they don’t want to share, the media will just move on,” Linda Petersen, Utah Headliners FOI chair said. “But this is information the public has a right to know. The media should not have to fight for it on the public’s behalf. UTA’s Black Hole Award is well-deserved.”