Texas should protect college journalists

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that states were free to establish their own privileges for journalists under the First Amendment, Maryland was the first to do so.  However, the statute protects only a person “who is, or has been, employed by the news media in an news gathering or news disseminating capacity.”1 Now a proposed bill before the Maryland House of Representatives would extend shield law protection to college journalists.

According to a recent article posted on the Student Law Press Center website, the issue has arisen in connection with the Innocence Project, whose website defines the group as an organization begun in 1992 to utilize DNA testing and criminal justice system reform to help exonerate wrongfully-convicted people.  The Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois has its own version of the Innocence Project in which students use investigative journalism to look for evidence of wrongful convictions.

David Protess, the professor who runs the program at Medill, was subpoenaed last year in connection with a murder case.  The subpoena requested, among other documents, all the notes, emails, syllabi and student grades for the class.

The creator of the bill hopes other states will follow Maryland’s example in giving college journalists the same protections as professional journalists.

Hopefully Texas will do just that.  Last year Gov. Perry signed off on the Free Flow of Information Act, which gives journalists a qualified privilege, meaning they can protect sources but they may be required to reveal information in certain cases, such as felony trials or trials involving death.

However, the Texas FFIA defines a “journalist” as a person who gathers or dispels information “for substantial financial gain.”  Unpaid college journalists obviously would not fall under this category.

But neither do bloggers.  The line between the three groups, the pros, the students and the bloggers is becoming increasingly less clear.  Many professional journalists are also in fact now bloggers.  If a college student should happen to get one lone article printed in a major newspaper, which paycheck wouldn’t qualify as “substantial financial gain”, should that student still not have the same protection as the author of a column that might appear right alongside his own?

It is unfortunate that in the language of the bill as it was originally filed in the Texas House, the definition of “journalist” did include people who are or were “employed by an institution of higher education.”  Had that version of the bill passed, Gov. Perry would have been leading the pack in the movement to protect freedom of the press.  To amend the bill now would simply be following the leader.  Nevertheless, it is a move that the Texas legislature should make to truly keep the flow of information free.

1.  Student Press Law Center. http://www.splc.org/legalresearch.asp?id=57. 2003.

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