The House of Representatives passed a bill Monday, April 17 that protects news reporters and media organizations from being forced to reveal unnamed confidential sources used in their reports—but only after a lengthy debate, four failed amendments, and discussion about which who qualified for protection. The legislation passed 107 to 34, 10 members were absent. Click here to see the bill, its amendments, and the vote tally.Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, single-handedly, advocated for the bill Monday evening on the floor of the House.
He said the state needs to add the provision to its statutes because at the moment, there isn’t enough case law in the to support a challenge of the past two or three cases. But his Republican opponents disagreed Monday. The Republican minority mounted a prolonged opposition to several provisions in the bill and without success introduced a number of their own, but toward the end of the debate started to give the majority party a little ground.Minority Leader Rep. Robert Ward, R-North Branford, said that he could support the bill’s intent, if it did not go beyond it’s original intention to shield reporters from disclosure of confidential sources. “The debate has been long and revealing,” he said. “It’s principally about confidential sources,” but somewhere along the way it was changed to include the “economic interests of the news organizations typically owned now by large corporate conglomerates,” Ward said. The vote may have been close if those extra things had been left out, he said. Ward pointed that at least one section of the bill allowed news organizations to charge for reproduction costs of any material it gathered that’s not protected under disclosure as it’s defined in the bill. Click here to read the bill. Spallone said the amended bill outlines the legislative intent for the judicial branch, which says even in a criminal case the courts can not compel a reporter to disclose their unnamed sources. He said this is currently not the case and the courts at the moment can force a reporter to give up that information. Spallone reminded his colleagues this is a reporters least favorite way to receive information that it weighs against the publics need to know. The disclosure agreement between the source and the reporter is broken if the reporter finds out the source lied and breach their agreement. Spallone said in this scenario, the reporter is free to disclose any information the source has shared with them.Typically before a newspaper even reports a story with an unnamed source it goes through a chain of command at the news organization where it’s scrutinized by senior editors, Spallone said. The most popular example is the two Washington Post reporters who broke the story about the Watergate scandal. Their editor Ben Bradley often held their stories until they received information from other on-the-record sources. But there were several legislators who doubted the integrity of news media organizations to police their own. Maybe 60 years ago this was the case, but not today, Rep. Arthur O’Neill R-Southbury opined. Think about it, he said, “Where do people get their news today? The Daily Show.” “Does the comedy show hosted by John Stewart have good editors?” O’Neill asked.“This is a good government bill,” Spallone said. Rep. William Hamzy, R-Terryville, asked if this legislation applied to bloggers, who disseminate their opinions on the Internet. Spallone said the bill does not specifically define bloggers, but said some bloggers, who report news, may fall into the news media definition in the bill. Hamzy said he wasn’t sure if blogs reported news and didn’t know if they should be afforded the same protections. “I’m not sure they’re equal,” he said. Ward added that he wasn’t sure there was even a need for the legislation since there’s been “no real fight” challenging the courts on the issue for the past 30 years. Jim Taricani, an investigative reporter from Rhode Island who testified at the public hearing would disagree. In the fall of 2000, a source handed Taricani a videotape that showed a high-ranking city official in Providence taking a $1,000 cash bribe in his office from a businessman working undercover for the FBI.It was part of a broader FBI investigation into corruption in the administration of former Providence Mayor Vincent Buddy Cianci.Officials from NBC decided that the airing of the tape was in the public interest and after the broadcast a judge ordered an investigation into where Taricani got it and when he refused to reveal his source, he was held in civil contempt and fined $85,000.There are no recent examples from the state of Connecticut, Spallone said. He said this anticipates that it could be an issue in the future. The bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law. It will need the approval of the Senate and governor before midnight, May 4.