Kent Bush: Joining the fight to protect journalist

Kent Bush

Our state legislators need to take note of what is going on out West and get busy passing a shield law for Kansas reporters.

If you don't believe a county attorney trying to bully a reporter into revealing her notes and confidential sources is proof of the need for a shield law in Kansas, you have a tragic lack of understanding.

The reporter in question is Claire O'Brien. She reported a story in which she interviewed a Hispanic murder suspect charged with killing one man and wounding another in a Labor Day weekend shooting. Her story also featured quotes from a source whose identity was protected.

The county attorney, Terry Malone, subpoenaed her to turn over her notes and also testify during the trial as to the identity of the unnamed source quoted in the story.

Many argue against a shield law because they feel it puts journalists above the law by protecting them from subpoenas.

But that protection is necessary to allow the uncovering of many wrongs in governments or corporations that would never be reported if the whistleblower believed they would have to take responsibility for their reports.

The ability to protect a source will bring things into the light that would remain forever in the shadows if sources had no protection.

The subpoenas issued to compel notes or force the revelation of sources tend to be a result of lazy investigative work or an attempt to intimidate the journalist by government agencies.

Honestly, if a reporter can get the story with nothing but a pen and notebook, why can't the Ford County attorney's office get the same information with the full force of law?

Journalists are the fourth estate. We are the non-governmental check in the system of checks and balances. If our ability to perform that check is fettered by having the ability to protect sources taken away, how many wrongs will go unrighted?

"The state can do its job and should do its job and only come to any reporter, expecting her to betray her sources and professional standards, if it's exhausted all other methods," O'Brien said recently. "And I think that there are plenty of avenues open before the state should take such a grave step."

Publishers within GateHouse Media in Kansas have all agreed to join this fight. We have agreed to share the expense of protecting this journalist from an unnecessary interference with her ability to gather and report the news.

The First Amendment forbids any laws from being made to curtail the freedom of the press. That includes courts issuing subpoenas that lessen that freedom to report.

If there is an overriding public safety issue, reporters would gladly share the information with authorities. But giving in to a county attorney hoping to use a shortcut to cover his bases is not enough of a public interest to violate the promise of confidentiality.

Kent Bush is publisher of the Augusta (Kan.) Gazette.