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Wash. state enacts sunshine, reporter shield laws

By The Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Taxpayers may see more government records, and news reporters can protect their sources without being jailed under two bills Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law.

The measures were among some two dozen that Gregoire signed on April 27.

Under the new sunshine law, a state committee is to examine more than 300 exemptions to the state's public-records act, a voter-approved law that spells out which government documents must be publicly disclosed.

Attorney General Rob McKenna requested the measure, which he said would repair years of damage done by laws and rules that keep government information out of taxpayers' view.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the state's public-records law by initiative in 1972.

The measure called for disclosure of campaign finances, lobbyist activity, financial affairs of elected officers and candidates, and access to public records.

When it passed, there were only 10 exemptions to the public-records section. Since then, hundreds of exemptions have been introduced.

Gregoire also signed a measure that protects journalists from being jailed for refusing to reveal their confidential sources of information.

That new law grants reporters absolute privilege for protecting confidential sources — the same exemption from testifying in court that is granted to spouses, attorneys, clergy and police officers.

Washington previously had no shield law, but its courts have ruled in favor of a less-strict qualified privilege, based on the First Amendment and common law.

McKenna, a Republican, also lobbied for the new shield law. A similar measure failed to pass the Legislature in 2006, but Democrats who control both chambers gave it their blessing this year.

State Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said the measure was not only a shield for reporters. Ultimately, the law protects those who pass along important information, which benefits the public, said Kline, the bill's main Senate sponsor.

"It's not a shield for the reporter. It's a shield for the readers — the voting public, you might say," he said.

The law is designed to protect people who are in the business of gathering news, but not bloggers or university professors who do not make a majority of their living doing so.

The governor's signature gives a bill the force of law, although bills take effect on different dates. Gregoire now has acted on more than 200 bills from the recently adjourned Legislature, and has about 300 more to deal with.

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