HELENA, Mont. (CN) - Journalists in Montana have added protection under a recently enacted shield law that protects their electronic communications held by third parties from government snooping.
House Bill 207, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, closes a loophole that allowed state and local government agencies in Big Sky Country to obtain reporters' notes and other confidential information from e-mail providers, social networking sites and other electronic sources.
Zolnikov introduced the bill, dubbed the Media Confidentiality Act, in January. It was passed by the Montana House of Representatives 90-7 on Jan. 31 and by the Senate in a 47-1 vote on March 21. Before that, it was unanimously approved by both chambers' judiciary committees.
The law, signed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on April 9 and enacted Oct. 1, prohibits "governmental bodies from requesting or requiring the disclosure of privileged news media information from services that transmit electronic communications," and prevents "an electronic communication service from being adjudged in contempt if the electronic communication service refuses to disclose certain information."
Reporters 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," according to the new law.
Zolnikov, a self-described "liberty-minded Republican," called the regulations the nation's strongest.
"Excited Montana now has the strongest journalism and media First Amendment rights in the country," Zolnikov tweeted Oct. 1.
Reporters at the state level deserved support, he said.
"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."
John MacDonald, a lobbyist for the Montana Newspaper Association, said the 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," MacDonald told Courthouse News earlier this year.
In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department, under former 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.
Zolnikov is no stranger to privacy issues. He introduced H.B. 400 in 2013, which would have given consumers control over their personal data and prevented companies from reselling it behind their backs. Labeled as "anti-business," the bill never made it out of committee, according to news reports.
But Zolnikov's H.B. 603 became law before Edward Snowden leaked information about a secret surveillance program run by the National Security Administration. The bill stated, in part: "A government entity may not obtain the location information of an electronic device without a search warrant issued by a duly authorized court."
"Sometimes you have to be the first to take a step," Zolnikov said, adding that the new media shield law "could set a precedent for other states."
Forbes named Zolnikov, 28, a top young law and policy personality in its "30 Under 30," in 2014. He "enjoys the finer things in life including shooting guns, fishing, and fighting tyranny," his website states.
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