Hawaii Senate committee debates shield law

Anita Hofschneider, Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) -- The Senate judiciary committee plans to decide next week whether to move forward with a bill to extend Hawaii's shield law with changes that would limit its scope in protecting journalists.

The law that shields reporters' confidential sources and notes is set to expire in June.

The Senate judiciary committee heard testimony Thursday about the bill.

The original version of the bill made Hawaii's existing shield law permanent, but the House judiciary committee amended the measure to narrow its scope.

The new version would require journalists to disclose material needed to investigate potential felonies, serious crimes involving unlawful injury to people or animals, and civil cases. The current law only has exceptions for felonies and defamation cases.

The House amendments were the focus of Thursday's hearing, in which news media organizations implored senators to reject the changes.

"I urge you based upon five years of history not to tamper with a bill that has worked perfectly in our jurisdiction and is recognized as one of the best in the country," said Jeff Portnoy, a longtime Hawaii media lawyer.

Portnoy spoke on behalf of the Hawaii Shield Law Coalition, which represents 16 media organizations including the Honolulu Star Advertiser and The Associated Press.

He said there haven't been any reported problems with the state shield law.

But the attorney general's office testified that the law is too broad and needs to be clarified.

The attorney general supports the House version of the bill and is asking lawmakers to amend it further so that it no longer applies to non-traditional journalists, such as bloggers.

The attorney General also wants lawmakers to give the state more access to journalists' unpublished material and to add an exception for defendants in criminal cases who need the information to ensure their right to a fair trial.

Chairman Clayton Hee of the Senate judiciary committee said he thinks the House amendments to the bill are reasonable.

Hee told The Associated Press after the hearing that he was disappointed in the testimony from news media advocates, noting that he had difficulty getting a clear example of a past instance in which the law was necessary to publish a story. Hee said he plans to meet with more news media advocates before the committee announces its decision Tuesday.

However, he said he thinks the House amendments maintain journalistic protections and that he will take a closer look at the attorney general's testimony that the law should be clarified.

"The last thing, I believe, that the Legislature wants is for any judge to suggest that the law is not clear," Hee said.

Forty states, including Hawaii, protect journalists from subpoenas, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. News media advocates say that Hawaii has one of the most progressive and comprehensive shield laws in the nation.