Dodge City makes an ironclad case for a shield law

A Dodge City stand-off between a newspaper reporter and a district judge should result in passage of a shield law by the 2010 session of the Kansas Legislature.
Dodge City Globe reporter Claire O’Brien wrote a series of stories about a murder there. Her stories caught the interest of the district judge who ordered O’Brien to turn over her unpublished notes from her interviews and investigations and to reveal the names of all of the people she spoke to about the case.
O’Brien said she couldn’t do that because she had promised her sources that they would remain anonymous.
The judge isn’t a patient man. Sometime very soon O’Brien may have to chose between going to jail and reneging on her promise to those who confided in her.
She says she is willing to go to jail, which would be a courageous thing, and also a wise thing to do. It would be wise because it is important for Kansas legislators to understand the need for a law protecting the public’s need to know.
That’s the purpose of shield laws. They do stand between reporters, newspapers and courts, but only to allow the gatherers and distributors of news about public events to do their jobs.
When a serious crime is committed the public deserves to know as much about the incident and those involved in it as newspaper reporters can discover and report. In the course of the investigation, it is not unusual for an informant to tell a reporter that he or she must remain un-named. At that point the reporter can agree or refuse to make the promise and end the conversation.
Shield laws are even more important when reporters are investigating corruption or fraud. It is important for the public to know when a person in a position of public trust is violating that trust and damaging the public by stealing or diminishing the performance of the public service involved. Successful investigations in-to fraud and corruption almost always involve information gained from informants who would have much to lose if they were identified.
The public’s interest in assuring that investigations into political corruption and fraud perpetrated by private corporations and public officials are effective seems as compelling as it is obvious.

SO WHY would a district judge take it upon himself to destroy the reputation for integrity of a reporter and her newspaper by ordering her to go back on her promise?
The question would probably be answered by saying that the public interest is served by bringing to light all of the facts surrounding a particular case and it is possible — not certain, understand, only possible — that Ms. O’Brien had information about the murder or the murderer that had to be made public or, at least, be made known to him.
For him to come to that conclusion, he had also to assume that Ms. O’Brien was a good deal more adept at investigating and interrogating than the Ford County sheriff and his deputies, the Dodge City police and, if they were involved, the KBI agents who assisted in the investigation.
A doubtful set of assumptions.
One is tempted to believe that the order to force Ms. O’Brien to break her promise was issued because the judge was unwilling to accept any limitation on his power to force compliance with his demands.
And that, fellow believers in an open society, is why a law is needed to help reporters dig, and keep digging, to uncover and explain what goes on behind the scenes that the public needs to know.
When you next see Rep. Bill Otto or Sen. Derek Schmidt, tell them that you support passage of the right-to-know act, Senate Bill 211 — not to protect Bob Johnson, Richard Luken, Ann Kazmierczak or Susan Lynn, but to help them do a better job of informing you.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.