Journalists urge expansion of media shield law in Maryland to protect against out-of-state subpoenas

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

Journalists and legal professionals from media groups in and around the state testified at a Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday to argue for an expansion of the state's reporter's shield law.

House Bill 8, sponsored by Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, would apply the shield law, which excuses journalists who reside in Maryland from disclosing their sources' identities in court, to subpoenas from states with different standards. Representatives of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, the Maryland D.C. Delaware Broadcasters Association, the Prince George's Sentinel and Montgomery Sentinel newspapers and The Washington Post all voiced their support.

The journalists' star witness was an out-of-stater: New York resident Jana Winter. The former Fox News reporter, now with The Intercept, fought a Colorado subpoena for nearly two years to maintain the confidentiality of a source in a story about the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. New York's high court eventually sided with Winter, rejecting the subpoena.

Winter stressed that legal protections of source confidentiality are necessary for reporters, who might need to promise anonymity in exchange for sensitive information or a crucial lead.

"The more that we as reporters have the backing of the state, of the statute, that we can go out and we can report more, and we're likely to be more accurate because we can talk to more confidential sources without the fear of going to jail in another state," she said.

In written testimony, Winter said: "No journalist should have to go through what I went through. ... The bill I’m speaking in support of today would protect Maryland reporters from ever having to suffer through the fear of being held in contempt for using confidential sources in reporting on news about a criminal case in another state with a weaker shield law."

The journalists said this state's protections for reporters are among the strongest in the nation -- reporters from Maryland, 11 other states and the District of Columbia have an absolute privilege to withhold sources' identities, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. James McLaughlin, deputy general counsel for The Washington Post, told delegates they should pass the proposed extension to prevent other states from undermining the shield law.

"This bill really would put Maryland back in the vanguard of protecting free speech and free press," he said.

In previous sessions, Rosenberg sponsored bills that have expanded the reporter's shield law to college students and independent contractors working for the media. He urged the delegates to add the latest protection to avoid a potential legal battle.

"In the current media environment, it's more the exception than the rule for a reporter only to be gathering news in the jurisdiction where he or she lives," Rosenberg said. "So the likelihood that a reporter will be subpoenaed by another state regarding a confidential source is great, far greater than it has been."

Several delegates expressed concerns about the wide scope of the shield law's protection and the potential consequences of exempting reporters from a subpoena law that's common to every state except North Dakota.

"I think, as it stands, it's too broad," Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, said of the bill. "This is a pretty major exception."

The Maryland Judicial Conference, which includes all judges in the state, sent a memorandum opposing the bill to committee members. The conference noted that the expanded protection would apply any time a Maryland judge found a "substantial likelihood" that another state's court would require a reporter living in the state to disclose a source.

"Essentially, what is being required is a pre-judgment of what another state may or may not do," the memorandum stated. "Carving out exceptions for particular groups based upon the responding state's laws is inconsistent with the uniform law and with the judiciary's role in enforcing the law."