Monday, March 14, 2011

West Virginia Legislature sends governor a shield law that protects student journalists

Our adjoining state of West Virginia is on the verge of getting a reporter's privilege law, which journalists usually call a shield law. The state legislature passed the bill over the weekend and sent it to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The state has been one of several in which journalists can cite previous court decisions, but not a statute to avoid revealing sources to which they have promised confidentiality. The District of Columbia, Kentucky and 38 other states have shield statutes; only Wyoming has no reporter's privilege in its Constitution, court decisions or statutes.

"The measure provides West Virginia reporters with a qualified reporter's privilege to refuse to disclose confidential sources, and documents that could identify confidential sources, in civil, criminal, administrative and grand jury proceedings," says the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. With on exception, the law does not protect unpaid journalists; it defines "reporter" as someone who gathers and disseminates information to the public "for a portion of the person's livelihood."

The exception is that the law does cover student journalists. "This language puts West Virginia at the very forefront of the country in recognizing the value of student journalism and the importance of protecting students who are increasingly doing professional-caliber work," said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. For background from the Reporters Committee on West Virginia case law and the bill's path through the Legislature, click here.

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