Learning about Reporter's Privilege and Shield Laws
Most of the courts in the U.S. have upheld reporter's privilege. Only the fourth circuit federal court of appeals, which is based in Richmond, VA and covers District of Maryland and the Eastern part of North Carolina, has said that it doesn't exist. Nonetheless, there are always lawyers, police, government employees and judges seeking to subvert reporter's privilege every week, like this reporter in San Diego. This happens in other countries all of the time, too. Last week in Canada, they tested a new law there to protect reporters from revealing their sources. Many other Western countries besides the U.S. and Canada have shield laws and freedom of expression. However, these laws have qualifiers and are not absolute, and there is no federal shield law in the U.S. Those are two of the many reasons that the reporter's privilege and shield laws are always being challenged. I couldn't find a list of the countries without shield laws, but this list of countries from the World Press Freedom Index helps us determine which countries treat journalists the worst (which probably includes lack of shield laws or reporter's privilege).
Although reporter's privilege has been around a long time, it's only been addressed by the Supreme Court once, in Branzburg v. Hayes. This case in 1972 decided that "in federal courts, a reporter may not generally avoid testifying in a criminal grand jury." The judges declared that the press did well enough without the constitutional protection. However, they did maintain that the only time a reporter can be compelled to testify is if the testimony is aligned with "overwhelming and compelling state interest." Many courts have interpreted this to mean that reporter's privilege does exist, except in rare cases. We won't ever have a completely free press until the courts declare that reporter's privilege exists, without exception, or we have a federal shield law. For the most part, it appears that many reporters in the U.S. act as if these things already occur, since they routinely face jail for not revealing their sources. Others are more cautious and do reveal their sources. As I mentioned before, reporters can also face breach of promise law suits if they don't maintain confidentiality.
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