Our View: Whistleblower protection is good for democracyA bill called the “Whistleblower Protection Act” has been introduced to the state legislature, and we support its passage. The bill’s adoption would be in the best interest of newspapers, the media and the general public.
By: Editorial staff, Hudson Star-Observer
A bill called the “Whistleblower Protection Act” has been introduced to the state legislature, and we support its passage. The bill’s adoption would be in the best interest of newspapers, the media and the general public.
State Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, and Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, a former reporter, introduced the bill designed to protect a journalist’s right to keep sources and material gathered during the reporting process confidential. Similar legislation has already been passed in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
The bill would also protect confidential sources. Most news organizations rarely use confidential sources, but the protection is important on those occasions. For example, a news source may have a legitimate fear of suffering harm or reprisals if he or she is identified. When a “confidential” source is used, the information can be essential in leading to the exposure of corruption, abuse of power or other misdeeds. Democracy sometimes needs those confidential sources. The proposed law would protect both the confidential source and the reporter who uses the source.
The crux of the bill, however, is not about protecting reporters – it’s more about protecting the people who know where there is corruption or other wrongdoing.
Parisi drafted the bill after consultation with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. While existing case law is helpful in offering judges guidance on confidential sources, officials with each of these organizations concluded the parameters for judges is not crystal clear.
In fact, there have been situations in Wisconsin where journalists have been pursued legally for trying to protect confidential sources.
In 1994, Milwaukee Magazine printed an investigative report on a Milwaukee dentist who was accused of bilking patients by pushing them to get unneeded and expensive treatments. A reporter for the magazine had interviewed several other dentists and dental experts, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. The accused dentist’s attorneys filed suit and demanded the names, notes and other material from the magazine’s interviews.
According to published accounts, the circuit court told the magazine to turn these over. But the appeals court declared that journalists have greater protection than other witnesses from having to comply with discovery subpoenas.
The new legislation would use that higher court ruling as a benchmark and offer guidance to judges in interpreting the threshold for forcing reporters to reveal a confidential source. If there is a situation where a judge determines there is no other way to determine the truth of a matter, then a judge can make a determination based on the circumstances of a case.
A hearing in the Assembly’s Committee on Judiciary and Ethics could be scheduled later this month. Gov. James Doyle has not taken a position on the bill yet.