CHEYENNE—A House committee advanced a bill Wednesday to create a journalists’ shield law that would protect reporters from having to reveal confidential sources in most cases during lawsuits.
The 8-1 vote by members of the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee advanced House Bill 91 – News source shield law. The measure would remove the state’s distinction as one of only two that lack such protections for the press.
The legislation would protect journalists in Wyoming from being held in contempt of court for refusing to disclose a confidential source during a legal proceeding. The shield would protect whistleblowers.
Without a shield law on the books, Wyoming runs the risk of not hearing from people who want to expose wrongdoing, Brian Martin, longtime editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, told the lawmakers.
“Improper use of public funds, embezzlement, abuse of power and more happen all the time,” Martin told the committee. “But we don’t know about it until someone steps forward to tell us about it.”
Wyoming and Hawaii are the last two states without a shield law, Martin said.
Past hang ups
A shield law is especially important in Wyoming where “everyone knows everyone,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), the bill’s sponsor.
“If there was some type of nefarious activity or something controversial, you’d know it was between three or four people and their identity protection would be paramount in those circumstances,” Zwonitzer said.
Two years ago when Zwonitzer brought similar legislation, some senators were troubled that the bill did not define “journalist.” Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Sheridan) — the one committee member to vote against the bill — raised similar worries on Wednesday.
“As I read this, basically anybody who says that they’re a journalist, gets this type of protection,” Western said. Several other states with shield laws have defined “journalist,” but Zwonitzer said those may be outdated since they were adopted before the rise of the internet.
While the bill’s sponsors considered adding such a definition this year, Zwonitzer said it was more appropriate to define “news information,” which the bill does. News information in the bill includes “any written, oral, pictorial, photographic or electronically recorded information or communication concerning local, national or worldwide events or other matters of public concern or public interest or affecting the public welfare.”
“What makes me feel comfortable is if somebody claims this privilege, they would have the burden of proving they are a journalist,” Zwonitzer said.
While the committee stuck with the sponsors’ definitions, it amended the bill to add the word “independent” to a section of the bill that referred to “current and former” journalists. That amendment came after David Iverson, host of a conservative podcast based in Buffalo, told the committee he was worried that he would not be protected.
Martin, who has been an editor at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle for nearly 25 years, told the committee of a recent news story the paper broke after a confidential source tipped reporters off.
A United States Postal Service worker told the paper that Cheyenne’s widespread mail disruption was the result of a policy that prioritized Amazon packages over other mail, Martin said. The tipster asked to remain anonymous to protect his or her livelihood — and the paper honored that.
But Martin said he could only do so much to keep that promise without a shield law in place.
“Even though delayed Social Security checks, bills, payments and medications are bad enough, there are in fact worse things that need to be exposed by professional journalists and the anonymous sources who want to expose them,” Martin said.
Jim Beck with the Wyoming Association of Broadcasters also spoke in favor of the bill.
“I understand that some may believe that this is a solution in search of a problem,” Beck said. “I would argue that the potential for application of this law exists every day.”
No one testified in opposition to the bill. It now goes to the full House.
Clarification: This story was updated to clarify details about Brian Martin’s tenure at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. —Ed.