Shield Law Works for Journalists and the Public

News Sentinel, July 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Shield Law Works for Journalists and the Public


On June 29, the lawyer representing Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett sent a subpoena to the News Sentinel seeking the newspaper's visitor logs and surveillance video, ostensibly for use in the mayor's divorce proceedings.

Frankly, it looks to us more like an attempt to circumvent Tennessee's shield law, which prevents officials from forcing news organizations to divulge the identity of sources for news stories. Burchett, it seems clear, wants to find out who supplied the News Sentinel with documents used for an article published June 24 that outlined unrecorded payments and other irregularities in his campaign finances.

We have filed a motion to quash the subpoena and expect to prevail by relying on Tennessee's solid reporter's shield law.

The shield law is an important protection for journalists and for the public's right to know. The vital portion of the law states that reporters shall not be required to disclose "the source of any information procured for publication or broadcast." The protection is strong, but not bulletproof. A judge may order a reporter to reveal a source. But first an investigating agency must prove there is probable cause the information is relevant to a specific legal violation, the information cannot reasonably be obtained by other means and that the people of the state have a compelling interest in the information.

We don't think any of those requirements are met in this case.

The News Sentinel does not take the use of anonymous sources lightly. Its parent, the E.W. Scripps Co., has a strict policy that governs the use of anonymous sources. But Scripps also recognizes that promises of confidentiality is sometimes the only way that journalists can get information to the public.

For instance, an anonymous tipster led to the first article on Open Meetings Act violations in Knox County in 2007. …

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