Photo by Jordan Frias

By Jordan Frias, New England PRO Chapter of SPJ President

Today the Joint Committee of the Judiciary heard testimony in favor of House Bill 762, which is titled “An Act Providing Against Compelled Disclosure of Certain Information by the News Media,” or the “Free Flow of Information Act.”

Among those in support were WCVB Channel 5’s Karen Anderson and Massachusetts Broadcasters Association Executive Director Jordan Walton [read testimony Shield Law Testimony REV].

After asking members to provide testimony in favor of the law, Vermont Press Association board member Paul Heintz, a writer and editor for “Seven Days” provided me with the following that was amended to meet the 3 minute time limit I had to testify:

I am speaking in support House Bill 762 or the “Free Flow of Information Act.” As president of the Society of Professional Journalists New England Chapter, I reached out across the region to see who would give testimony in support of this bill and found Paul Heintz of the Vermont Press Association, who’s a former Bay Stater and worked for Seven Days newspaper in Vermont for five years. He successfully fought for a shield law in Vermont and here’s what he wrote:

When a Vermont state senator was accused of sex crimes in May 2015, the newspaper for which I work did what it was supposed to do. We sought to ferret out the facts by interviewing the accused, his accusers and witnesses alike. Our reporting brought to light even more information than the authorities had obtained.

Both the prosecution and the defense wanted to use our reporting to bolster their respective cases. Three of our reporters and editors were served with subpoenas and asked to turn over our notes, recordings, emails and even story drafts. One reporter nearly had to take the stand.

When reporters are asked to testify against those we cover, we lose the independence that is essential to our credibility. When we are forced to turn over our unpublished notes, we become deputized law enforcement officers. And when we are compelled to reveal the identity of a confidential source, we lose the trust of any witness or whistleblower who may consider speaking with us in the future.

Intrusive and unnecessary subpoenas make it impossible for us to do our jobs. That, in turn, deprives our readers — the American people — of the information they need to practice democracy.

We were fortunate to work for a newspaper that had the resources to fight our subpoenas in court — and, in the end, we did not have to testify or turn over our notes. But many financially struggling newspapers — particularly at the local level — might simply have complied.

Our newspaper and a broad coalition of independent journalists fought for a media shield law. The bill we crafted was quite similar to H.762, the legislation you are considering today.

Last spring, the Vermont Senate voted unanimously in favor of our bill, and the Vermont House supported it. Our Republican governor, Phil Scott, agreed with our Democratic legislature and signed the bill into law. The First Amendment, both sides realized, belongs to no political party and protects us all equally.

Because the federal government is unlikely to pass a national shield law anytime soon, it is imperative that state legislators such as yourselves recognize the peril journalists face and do what you can to protect these basic freedoms. I’m hopeful that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, birthplace to America’s free press, will follow Vermont’s lead and enact House Bill 762.