March 3, 2010

Student reporters would get shield law coverage

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

The state’s shield law for professional journalists would be extended to unpaid student reporters, under a bill moving through the House of Delegates.

The bill, which is headed for a final vote in the chamber within a few days, would close what some see as a loophole in the state law. The shield law prevents journalists from being compelled by law to reveal their confidential sources.

Journalists are protected in Maryland, but only if they are working for a news outlet. The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association says Maryland’s shield law is “very strong,” but complained in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee that it only defines journalists by their employment status.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, sponsored the bill. He said he’d ultimately like to see shield protections go farther, perhaps to cover high school journalists as well as unpaid bloggers. But he said there was a special urgency to cover college journalists this year, after a situation in Illinois raised concerns around the country.

Last year, prosecutors attempted to subpoena documents related to a project at Northwestern University where students were working to prove the innocence of a convicted murderer. Among those documents were student grades and performance records.

“If anything, there were people asking, should we go further?” Rosenberg said of his bill.

Sarah Elfreth, student regent for the University System of Maryland and a senior at Towson University, said many students might not realize they are not covered by the shield law now.

It effectively covers staffers at The Diamondback at the University of Maryland, College Park, who are paid. Top editors at the Towson Towerlight are paid as well, but many other students — including those reporting as part of a class – fall through the cracks.

“These students are working their butts off, and they’re potentially not [covered],” Elfreth said. She said there haven’t been major problems within Maryland, but that the Cook County decision “raises a red flag, and it’s a big gaping hole in our system.”