- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont lawmakers are considering a bill that would strip the government’s subpoena power to force news reporters to reveal confidential sources.

Vermont is one of only a handful of states that don’t have so-called shield laws that provide some legal protection to journalists and put their notes and recordings from their newsgathering duties out of reach of the government.

“From a principled standpoint, we want a free and unfettered press in this state, and this bill goes a long way in supporting that,” Attorney General T.J. Donovan said in previous testimony before a Senate committee.

Supporters say that having no shield law has a chilling effect on a free press and makes it difficult for reporters to ensure confidentiality to sources when anonymity is the only way to get critical information.

The bill would furnish reporters legal protection behind their promise of confidentiality, akin to attorney-client privilege or the doctor-patient relationship.

“Reporters really shouldn’t be seen as arms of the police or the prosecution,” Vermont Public Radio news director John Dillon said.

The bill also would set a legal standard that the government would have to meet in order to force journalists to take the witness stand in court proceedings or to reveal unpublished information they gather from non-confidential sources.

The Senate Committee on Government Operations is to vote on the measure Wednesday; it could go to the full Senate for a vote this week.

Advocates for the bill are also pushing lawmakers to widen the scope of who would be protected by the measure. As the bill is now written, it’s unclear if a person who works as a journalist but is not employed by a news organization would be protected.

Recent attempts to subpoena Vermont journalists help spur consideration of a shield law.

Last year, reporters for Vermont Public Radio and Seven Days newspaper were subpoenaed in relation to news that then-Sen. Norm McAllister was charged with several sex crimes involving two women. After some legal wrangling, the judge in that case dismissed two of the Seven Days subpoenas, but left in place one Seven Days subpoena and one for a VPR reporter. McAllister recently withdrew a plea deal and is still fighting his case.

And in 2004, unaired tapes from WCAX television station were subpoenaed in a University of Vermont police investigation into a riot at the school after the Boston Red Sox world series victory over the New York Yankees. The station fought the subpoena but eventually lost its case at the Vermont Supreme Court, which rejected media protections. WCAX was forced to turn over the footage.

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