by Michael Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association
The Vermont Press Association praises and thanks the Vermont Legislature for approving a shield law designed to protect journalists from unwarranted subpoenas concerning their sources.
The House of Representatives gave final approval to the legislation, 140 to 2, April 20 and is sending the measure to Gov. Phil Scott for his signature.
“This is an important piece of legislation that is designed to prohibit any governmental body from trying to compel the news media to divulge a confidential source or being forced to testify about information that is readily available from other sources,” Vermont Press Association President Adam Silverman said. He added the bill also protects the media under some circumstances from disclosing information obtained in the normal course of newsgathering.
“We are in a time now where it’s important that whistleblowers and other sources of information who wish to speak with journalists know that the threat of jail or fines to reporters cannot be made,” said Silverman, an editor and reporter at the Burlington Free Press.
“Shield laws, as they exist in many other jurisdictions, work only to enhance the First Amendment by preventing government overreach. All Vermonters ultimately are beneficiaries of this legislation.”
The Vermont Senate unanimously passed the bill March 23, and the House Judiciary Committee approved it with no opposition on April 13 before sending it to the full House.
The Vermont legislation is designed to provide further protection to journalists in cases where courts have not recognized a First Amendment privilege. The law also provides protections to sources, including the accused, crime victims and whistleblowers, who can expose waste and wrongdoing. Some have said they have been reluctant to speak with reporters knowing there was little or no protection for journalists from a court order compelling disclosure of a source.
A broad coalition of radio, television, online and freelance journalists joined the VPA in advocating for the legislation. The bill, known as S.96, was the top legislative priority this year for the VPA, which represents the interests of the 11 daily and four-dozen non-daily printed newspapers circulating in Vermont.
The association thanks several legislators who either up front or behind the scenes championed the need to protect journalists from becoming investigative arms of the state, defense lawyers or other entities.
Special praise goes to Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Jeanette White, D-Windham, for introducing the bill and seeking testimony from all interested parties to make the measure stronger. The VPA also thanks Reps. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, and Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, for shepherding the bill through the House. The VPA also appreciates the tri-partisan support S.96 received from Democrats, Republicans and Progressives. It took eight weeks from introduction to passage in both chambers.
The bill had widespread support outside the State House, including endorsements from Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Society for Professional Journalists.
With Gov. Scott’s expected signature on the bill, Vermont would join about 40 states that previously have enacted some kind of media shield law.