Montana Closes Loophole in Media-Shield Law

     HELENA, Mont. (CN) – Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has signed a bill that bolsters existing media-shield law to protect the freedom of the press.
     House Bill 207, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, closes a loophole that allowed state and local governments to obtain reporters’ notes and other confidential information from e-mail providers, social networking sites and other electronic sources.
     The Media Confidentiality Act, signed on April 9, passed the House by 90-7 on Jan. 31 and the Senate by 47-1 on March 21. It had been unanimously approved by both the House and Senate judiciary committees.
     The bill prohibits “governmental bodies from requesting or requiring the disclosure of privileged news media information from services that transmit electronic communications,” and prohibits “an electronic communication service from being adjudged in contempt if the electronic communication service refuses to disclose certain information.”
     Under the bill’s language, reporters also may not be “examined as to or required to disclose any information obtained or prepared or the source of that information in any legal proceeding if the information was gathered, received and processed in the course of his employment or its business.”
     John MacDonald, a lobbyist for the Montana Newspaper Association, says the new law will go a long way in protecting reporters and giving them confidence that they will not be forced to give up names of sources, leads and other information.
     “We have been fortunate that we have not had an issue like this come up, where the government in Montana attempted to access reporters electronic information, but this ensures reporters that they are on a strong footing, so they can say ‘I don’t have to give you what you are asking for, and you can’t access it from a third party,” he told Courthouse News.
     The bill is the first of its kind in the nation and an important first step forward in protecting the freedom of the press, especially in light of the government’s recent investigations focusing on members of the media.
     In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder issued subpoenas for phone records from the Associated Press. The department also named Fox News reporter James Rosen a “criminal co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act of 1917, in connection to possible leaks of classified information about North Korea in 2009.
     “Freedom of the press is one of the most crucial rights contained in the First Amendment,” Zolnikov said on his website. “We’ve seen unprecedented attacks on the rights of the press in recent years at the federal level, but we can show our support for reporters at the state level.”

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