Shield Law Failure Likely
By ANNETTE BUCHANAN
Emerald Managing Editor
SALEM (Special) — House Bill 1020—a reporter’s shield law — appeared doomed after a two and one-half hour public hearing of the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday night in Salem.
Although most of the committee members seemed receptive toward the philosophy of qualified privilege for journalists, they were unhappy with the proposed statute.
“We can’t work with what we have; that bill will have to be re-written,” commented committee chairman Don Wilson (R-Lane-Benton) after the session. “Even Skelton confessed to me that he wasn’t happy with the wording.
Keith Skelton (D-Eugene), a University professor of business law, is a sponsor of the bill, along with Hugh McGilvra (R-Washington), Ed Elder (R-Lane), and Lee Johnson (R-Multnomah).
Former Lane County District Attorney William Frye was the major opponent of the bill. His testimony followed that of several distinguished journalists who spoke in favor of the bill, including:
• Morgan Coe, publisher of the Daily Astorian and president of the Oregon Newspaper Publisher’s Association (ONPA).
• Ron Phillips, Newport, chairman of the Press-Bar Committee of the Oregon Association of Broadcasters (OAB).
• Frank Wetzel, Portland Associated Press bureau chief and president of the Willamette Valley chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, journalism fraternity.
• Richard Ross, Portland, news director at KGW-TV.
• John L. Hulteng, dean of the University School of Journalism and former editorial writer and foreign correspondent for the Providence (Rhode Island) Statesman.
• Robert C. Notson, executive editor of the Portland Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).
• Bob Bruce, Salem, head of the Capital News Bureau
• And former Oregon Governor Charles A. Sprague, publisher of the Salem Statesman.
As sponsor of the bill, Skelton spoke first, giving background information and explaining that he had introduced the bill at a specific request of ONPA.
All the witnesses mentioned the Annette Buchanan case in which an Emerald editor was found in contempt of court for refusing to reveal her confidential news sources. That case is now on appeal to the State Supreme Court.
Last spring’s incident in Lane County points up a reason for introduction of the bill at this time, said Skelton. “We have seen the implication of lack of such privilege.”
While emphasizing that the bill could have no legal effect on the status of the Buchanan case, Skelton said that its origin was in the circumstances of her case.
“The statute would tend to reduce prior restraint which agencies of law enforcement may place upon the press,” Skelton said, calling it a laudatory effect
Whether such cases of restraint are widespread or isolated, they have a serious and deleterious effect on freedom of the press.
Phillips presented the unanimous decision of OAB to support the bill and explained that it would: “permit the media to perform its function of informing the citizenry by partially removing what might be a serious obstacle to newsgathering.”
Wetzel said the bill would help to strengthen a newspaper’s “watch dog function.” And, he quipped, “if a journalist had to choose between the mercy of a district attorney or the judiciary, I think we would take the judge.”
Ross explained that the bill would give a “basis for decision. Cases should be decided on merit, but there should be a basis in law,” he said.
“It is important that the public know the existence of socially undesirable activities so that it can take intelligent action,” said Hulteng. “Anonymous sources are necessary if the public is to learn the extent of and the reasons for such activities.”
“Right to Know”
Notson continued: “The right to know cannot be maintained if editors are to be intimidated. Requiring a reporter or editor to break his word would only serve to dry up sources of information.”
Bruce charged: “In a situation where an Annette Buchanan case can occur, the bill is a step in the right direction.”
Committee members gave little question to the points made by the witnesses, but who were concerned with the vague wording of the bill. They attacked it for lacking a good definition of the press and for providing only vague and ambiguous guidelines for the judge’s decision.
“I find myself in my usual role—a voice in the wilderness,” said Frye, as he seated himself in the witness chair, waving a xeroxed copy of the May 24, 1966 issue of the Oregon Daily Emerald, containing Miss Buchanan’s story on campus marijuana use.
But as he tried to use that article in his “background’ information, committee member Johnson interrupted: “I don’t want to try that case now or hear any more about it.”
Frye went on to attack the philosophy of repertorial privilege as being contrary to common law, opposed by bar associations, and not fulfilling the conditions required for statutory privilege.
“The reluctance of reporters to talk is their own best protection,” he said. “There’s no need to legalize it.” Frye expressed the possibility of shield laws becoming a threat to the orderly administration of justice and dangerous to the public interest.
“Although I oppose privilege laws” concluded Frye, “I haven’t drawn up one of my own which I would like the committee to consider if it feels that it must pass a shield law.
Here is the text of the bill under discussion:
A BILL FOR AN ACT
Relating to confidential communications to news reporters.
Be It Enacted by the People of the State of Oregon:
SECTION 1. It is hereby declared to be the public policy of the state that no person engaged in the work of gathering or disseminating news shall be required to disclose before any proceeding or by authority the source of information procured by him in the course of such work unless disclosure be essential to prevent injustice or to protect the public interest, and an order for such disclosure is made by a court of competent jurisdiction.
SECTION 2. In granting or denying a testimonial privilege under this Act, the court shall have due regard to the nature of the proceeding, the merits of the claim or defense, the adequacy of the remedy otherwise available, the relevancy of the source, and the possibility of establishing by other means that which the source is offered as tending to prove. An order compelling disclosure shall be appealable, and subject to stay.
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