SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s highest court has published a draft rule that would make it difficult for lawyers and judges to demand that news reporters reveal confidential sources for a story.
The state Supreme Court is taking public comments on the rule until Jan. 22.
“It creates a near absolute privilege for reporters and their confidential sources, meaning that if a journalist was called to testify in a court hearing or an administrative hearing, they could use this shield to protect their sources,” said Joel Campbell, a former journalist who teaches at Brigham Young University.
The four-page rule must be approved by a majority of the court’s five justices to take effect. State legislators have promised not to intervene.
Some prosecutors complain the privilege could keep guilty people from the reach of the law.
“Let’s assume there is a murder trial in process and during the trial one of the defendant’s fellow gang members goes to a reporter and says he committed the crime instead of the defendant,” said Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.
Under the rule, “we cannot go to the reporter and find out who it was who said that so we can make sure we are prosecuting the right person,” Boyden said.
Judges would make the call, after balancing the interests of justice against the free flow of information. Reporters would not have to reveal sources if the information sought by prosecutors or defense lawyers could be obtained some other way.
“I did a lot of research into the issue and realized that it really is necessary to have a reporter privilege,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said.
“Some of the most serious cases, particularly in regard to government secrecy, only came to light because someone came to a reporter in confidence,” he said.
Salt Lake Tribune Editor Nancy Conway said reporters still could be compelled to reveal sources in life-threatening situations.
Utah is one of three states that doesn’t offer reporters some protection from authorities.
The rule does not mention Internet bloggers, but an advisory committee to the Utah Supreme Court recognized the need to accommodate new electronic forms of expression.
“While there are not many ‘lone pamphleteers’ still functioning, they may have modern-day counterparts on the Internet,” the committee wrote.