Shield law proposal rejected by Senate committee

CHEYENNE – A bill to protect journalists from having to disclose their anonymous sources during lawsuits was defeated by a Senate committee Friday morning, meaning Wyoming will remain one of two states without some version of a shield law in place.

House Bill 103, which the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected by a 3-1 vote, would have protected journalists in Wyoming from being held in contempt of court for refusing to disclose a confidential source or piece of information during a legal proceeding. Wyoming is one of the last two states without some version of a shield law in place, with Hawaii being the only other state to lack one in recent years.

During testimony in the committee meeting, a handful of journalists and transparency advocates spoke of the need for a shield law in Wyoming, especially to protect whistleblowers and those who otherwise would not disclose confidential information about a government agency, business or other institution. Chris Merrill, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said shield laws help to ensure a democracy is as healthy and robust as it can be.

“That’s why all these other states have some sort of shield law,” Merrill said. “It’s to uphold the spirit of the Constitution, because our democracy is best served when journalists are not inhibited from reporting the news, directly or indirectly, by governmental restraint or sanctions imposed by governmental process.”

Lawmakers also heard from Josh Wolfson, editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, who pointed to specific news stories from his paper that required the use of confidential sources. Without a shield law, Wolfson said whistleblowers and other sources could be deterred from revealing information for those types of stories.

His points were further emphasized by Brian Martin, managing editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and Jim Beck, general manager of the Gray Television stations in Casper and Cheyenne, both of whom said a shield law would allow journalists to more easily speak with sources for crucial stories.

Before its passage in the House, the shield law proposal had been amended to address a few concerns raised by lawmakers, such as who qualifies as a journalist and specific exceptions to the shield law when the confidential information poses an immediate threat.

Despite the amendments, the proposal faced oppositions from a few members of the committee, who worried the shield law could be used improperly. Although others pointed out civil lawsuits can still be brought against news outlets for reporting misinformation, Sen. John Kolb, R-Rock Springs, noted there was no penalty for misconduct included in the bill.

“I am in favor of a shield law,” Kolb said. “I don’t have any issues with it. I think it serves a great purpose in trying to get data and information, but I’m concerned about the lack of consequences … Maybe I’m a skeptic. I do support the shield law, but I can’t support it as written.”

The bill then failed by a 3-1 vote, with bill co-sponsor and committee chair Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, excused.