Texas shield law for journalists rears its head again

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A few weeks back, the Chronicle editors wrote an editorial encouraging the Legislature to pass HB188, a bill that would give journalists special privileges — in essence, a shield law. We pointed out then that the bill is poorly worded and it would be unwise to grant special privileges to journalists.

A blogHOUSTON reader gave us a heads up today that the Senate side has its own bill — SB604 — introduced by state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D), and the reader suggests that Ellis may have the votes needed to move it out of committee.

We cannot emphasize enough what a lousy piece of legislation this is. The press already has a protection in place — it’s called the First Amendment.

Amusingly, in its earlier editorial, the Chronicle said:

The bill would not create a special class of persons. Journalism is an activity open to anyone with a copier or Web site. The bill stipulates only that the journalism must be disseminated, drawing the distinction between reporters and commentators, and diarists and people who merely agree to keep a secret.

However, the two bills do not make that distinction. Here is how the (identical) bills define “journalist” and “news medium”:

(1) “Journalist” means a person, or an employee,
independent contractor, or agent of that person, engaged in the
business of gathering, compiling, writing, editing, photographing,
recording, or processing information for dissemination by any news

(2) “News medium” means a person who in the ordinary
course of business publishes, broadcasts, or otherwise
disseminates news by print, television, radio, or other electronic
means accessible to the public.

There is nothing in those definitions that draws a distinction between reporters and commentators. How many times have we seen columnists and bloggers dig up news that the “professional” media doesn’t, for whatever reasons? And bloggers and columnists use the internet which would be included in “other electronic means accessible to the public.”

My question then, as now, is if Rick Casey is covered, in the Chronicle‘s interpretation? What about Clay Robison or Cragg Hines? They are commentators. What about Kyrie O’Connor? She writes the blog MeMo, which is available online only. Are bloggers considered journalists?

These definitions are muddy and open to numerous interpretations. We don’t agree that “professional journalists” should be given special privileges that would not be given to any average citizen — including diarists and secret-keepers. The First Amendment is sufficient protection.

If you are so inclined, please call your state representative and senator and politely voice your opinion on this proposed journalist shield law.

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Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.