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Protecting the Press

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Protecting the Press

Article excerpt

JUDGES WEIGHING NEWS organization requests to quash subpoenas are far more impressed by state shield laws than ringing declarations about the First Amendment, mounting evidence shows.

"A well-defined shield law which is well-publicized can make an important difference between getting lots of subpoenas and getting none," said Jane E. Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A 1991 Reporters Committee survey, for example, showed that courts are "much more likely" to quash subpoenas when the motion is based on a shield law rather than First Amendment arguments.

Kirtley also noted that after Georgia adopted a shield law, the number of subpoenas brought against news organizations in the state dropped from 152 in 1989 to just 16 in 1991.

Shield laws have become increasingly important as judges, appointed during the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, are less inclined to rule' in favor of the media, Kirtley and other journalists told the recent Freedom of Information Summit, sponsored in Nashville, Tenn., by the Freedom Forum.

That new judicial mood is what convinced South Carolina Press Association executive director Jay Bender that news organizations in the state could no longer rely only on constitutional arguments.

"I've changed my mind about [shield laws]. The easiest reason is that the balance of the judiciary has changed drastically in the last 15 years," he said. "Now the presumption is getting information into the court. …

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