- Associated Press - Thursday, April 20, 2017

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - In a nearly unanimous vote, the Vermont House on Thursday approved a bill designed to protect journalists from revealing confidential sources, even when threatened with a subpoena.

The House voted 140-2 without debate to give final approval to the bill. It passed the Senate unanimously last month. The bill will soon land on the desk of Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who supports the bill, said spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley.

“I think this is a huge victory for a free press in Vermont and for the sources we rely upon,” said Paul Heintz, a board member of the Vermont Press Association and political editor at Vermont’s Seven Days newspaper.

Heintz, along with a cohort of media professionals from Vermont’s print, radio and television outlets, became temporary lobbyists to help get the law through, putting them in an uncomfortable position, Heintz said.

“I think that none of us want to be in this role of advocating for legislation. We would much rather be reporting. But if we don’t fight for this, nobody is going to,” Heintz said.

The bill protects journalists from giving up their confidential sources or from turning over work, including unpublished tapes, notes and photos, to state officials who may want to compel them to do so through a subpoena.

The law essentially recognizes a privacy privilege between a journalist and source, similar to what exists between a lawyer and client, or doctor and patient. It also provides standards for prosecutors to meet if they want to compel journalists to turn over non-confidential information.

“It really protects the sources who could be whistleblowers, or victims, or even accused criminals, where disclosure of that information could be of danger to them,” said Democratic Rep. Martin LaLonde.

A factor for some House members that pushed them to support the bill was rhetoric from President Donald Trump, who has attacked the news media and said on the campaign trail he would like to weaken the country’s libel laws so journalists could be sued for printing disparaging information.

“It’s critical for us, especially in this environment, that the press can do the job they need to do,” said Jill Krowinski, the House Democratic majority leader.

Recent attempts to subpoena Vermont journalists helped spur support for a shield law.

Last year, Vermont Public Radio and Seven Days newspaper reporters were subpoenaed in relation to news that then-Sen. Norm McAllister was charged with several sex crimes involving two women. The reporters never took the stand because the case fell apart for unrelated reasons.

Republican Rep. Bob Frenier was one of two lawmakers who voted against the bill. Frenier, a former newspaper editor, supports the concept of a shield law but worries Vermont’s law is too narrow.

“The definition of a free press is so broad now and this bill narrows it down, and that’s not a good thing,” Frenier said.

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