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Colorado Bill Would Bolster Reporter’s Shield Law

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

DENVER (AP) — Journalists in Colorado may get legal help protecting their sources with legislation inspired by the case of a New York reporter who was pressured to divulge who gave her information about the 2012 theater shootings.

The proposal would change the conditions under which a reporter can be compelled to reveal sources, and it would delete a provision in Colorado law that says efforts to obtain information for a case can outweigh First Amendment interests.

The bill gets its first hearing Wednesday.

Colorado Springs Sen. Bernie Herpin, one of two Republicans pitching the bill, said he saw a need for legislation this fall because of Jana Winter, a Fox News journalist who reported that James Holmes, the suspect in the suburban Denver theater shootings, had mailed a notebook to a psychiatrist depicting violence.

Holmes’ lawyers tried to get Winter to name the sources who gave her that information, but a New York appeals court ruled in December that she was protected by that state’s shield law.

Herpin said if sources are reluctant to come forward with information, “important issues may never see the light of day.”

“So in order for the press to do its job of watching out for the public, it has to have assurances that, when necessary, a confidential source can be protected,” he said.

While following Winter’s case, Herpin said he learned that Colorado’s shield law is not as robust as New York’s, which is considered one of the nation’s strongest. Herpin said he wants Colorado’s law to match New York’s.

Colorado law requires reporter subpoenas to prove that the information being sought is “directly relevant” in a proceeding. Herpin’s bill would change the law so subpoenas would have to meet a higher standard — that the information sought is “critical or necessary” in a case, as well as “highly material and relevant.”

Colorado is among nearly two dozen states where shield laws contain exceptions to compel journalists to reveal their sources, according the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“It’s incredibly costly, expensive, and burdensome to fight the fight, even if you win,” said Steven Zansberg, an attorney for the Colorado Press Association.

Other states have protections for reporters to varying degrees, but New York is among a dozen states where shield laws contain “absolute privilege” for sources, according to RCFP.

So while Colorado’s law has some protections, it was New York’s law that ultimately prevented Winter from being forced to reveal her sources, Zansberg said.

“I consider the media a watchdog for the people,” said Herpin, a first-year lawmaker who was previously on Colorado Springs’ city council. “Sometimes I’ve been the victim of misreporting or whatever when I was on city council. Those things happen. But I look back to things like the Watergate case, where the source came forward and that resulted in a president leaving office.”

BY IVAN MORENO, Associated Press

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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