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Our View: Law is good for media and public

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Area legislator Sen. Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls) has introduced a bill that has earned high praise from the media, but also should be embraced by the public.

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The so-called Whistleblower Protection Act is good for journalists because newspapers and other media can use the protection to aggressively pursue information that is sometimes difficult to find. In the end, it is the public that benefits.

The bill is designed to protect a journalist's right to keep confidential the sources and material gathered during the reporting process. Similar legislation has already been passed by 32 other states. Congress is also currently deliberating whether to create such a protection under federal law.

Protecting confidential sources is essential to reporting some of society's injustices. The Whistleblower Protection Act helps ensure that information needed to protect the public and guard against malfeasance can be made public.

Oftentimes the only way delicate information can be effectively disseminated is if a source can trust a reporter's ability to maintain their confidentiality. Many confidential sources provide information at great risk to their careers, livelihood and sometime even their physical safety. Journalists must be able to protect the confidentiality of those who come out of the shadows to expose public or private wrong-doing.

Most media organizations, and especially smaller newspapers (including the Hudson Star-Observer), use confidential sources sparingly. But sometimes anonymity is necessary to protect those who offer reporters information about public or private malfeasance.

If reporters can easily be forced to reveal their confidential sources in court, potential whistle-blowers will think twice about giving tips to those journalists. In the past decade at the Star-Observer, a number of stories have come from sources that have needed anonymity.

Of course, what this ultimately comes down to is what could happen if a case went to court.

There have been cases under current Wisconsin law where journalists have been required by trial courts to reveal confidential sources to litigants in an ongoing court case. While Wisconsin appellate courts have provided some protection to journalists, these decisions need to be codified and clarified to provide certainty in this area of the law.

This legislation would provide judge guidelines for protecting a reporter's First Amendment right to gather information and protect sources that have blown the whistle on corruption, malfeasance and violations of the public trust.

We think this is not only a good protection but a necessary protection. Freedom of the press is a critical component of the Bill of Rights. The Whistleblower Protection Act would ensure that the "good guys" have some protection from the "bad guys."

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