It was with cautious optimism Monday that we greeted news of the South Dakota House of Representatives passage of the “Journalists’ shield law”.
The basic idea behind the shield law, known in the legislature as House Bill 1074, is to allow journalists the freedom to speak to sources and secure the information without fear of being compelled to testify or to divulge their sources in court, before a grand jury or to the legislature.
Gov. Kristi Noem called for such a law earlier this year during her State of the State address partially because journalists in South Dakota are not already granted these protections. And the need for such protection is very real.
“What about the first amendment?”, some may say. It is true that one of the five freedoms guaranteed to the American people by the first amendment to our constitution is a free press. But just because the constitution says government can’t shut journalists down, doesn’t mean government officials won’t try to. And while the constitution is, as founding documents go, fantastic, it is just vague enough for government officials to take some liberties.
Does forcing a journalist to divulge her sources amount to a violation of the first amendment? Well, plenty of judges have, apparently, thought it does not. In 2006, a freelance video journalist in San Francisco was jailed for months after he refused to give prosecutors a video they said showed protestors destroying a police car. In 2004, a Rhode Island journalist was sentenced to six months of house arrest for criminal contempt of court after refusing to tell investigators who had given him a video showing city officials accepting bribes. The video footage was being used as evidence in a sealed court case against the city officials.
House Bill 1074, if it wins approval from the state Senate, will prevent government officials from using the power they’ve been granted to intimidate journalists who work hard to uncover facts, those in power might find embarassing or threatening. This law is doubly important in a state such as South Dakota whose open records and meetings laws can only be described politely as a joke. Government officials, particularly law enforcement officials, are given a lot of latitude to conceal information from the people who pay their salaries. This shield law will give journalists in our great state another tool to use in our ongoing fight to tell you, our readers what your government is getting up to.