The relationship between whistle-blowers and reporters in uncovering corruption has received significant protection by Utah courts.
On Wednesday, a majority of the Utah Supreme Court voted to approve Rule 509, Utah's first reporter's shield rule, which will protect reporters from being forced to divulge their sources and other sensitive information.
"It's a great day for journalists in the state of Utah and it's a great day for the public," said media attorney Jeff Hunt, who represented a coalition of media outlets who worked with the courts to get the rule passed. The rule also has the support of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Deseret Morning News Managing Editor Joe Cannon said it's good to have that reassurance that reporters will be able to seek out the truth. "We think it's a great day for the First Amendment," Cannon said.
Hunt said it was close to a three-year process which involved intense study of the issue by the courts, lawmakers, prosecutors and journalists. Some prosecutors objected to the proposed rule, saying it interfered with their ability to conduct investigations. In the end, the Supreme Court justices supported the press' concept that by giving journalists the ability to protect the identity of their sources, whistle-blowers would be more likely to come forward with accounts of corruption and abuse.
After a second round of public comment, which ended Tuesday, the state's high court moved swiftly to adopt the new rule.
"The rule protects whistle-blowers and allows them to come forward," Hunt said. "It also prevents lawyers from using journalists as one-stop shopping for all their information needs."
In the past, Hunt said there have been examples of prosecutors attempting to get information from reporters rather than doing their own investigative work. Hunt said the danger in that is that reporters effectively become investigators for both prosecutors and private attorneys who are trying to build a case.
Cannon said across the country there have been examples of reporters being subpoenaed for their information, at times even jailed.
"Today is a banner day for the First Amendment in Utah," Shurtleff said Thursday. "A strong new evidentiary rule protecting the confidentiality of a reporter's sources will ensure the free flow of information which is so essential to open government and a democratic society."
Specifically, the shield rule protects reporters from being compelled to divulge confidential sources. The one exception is in extreme cases in which disclosure is necessary to "prevent substantial injury or death." The shield rule also protects unpublished work, such as a reporter's notes, drafts, outtakes, photographs and research materials.
"The rule was passed with considerable thought and dialogue between advocates for the public, the courts, the law and law enforcement," said Ben Winslow, president of the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. "It is not an absolute privilege, but will ensure proper protections on all sides. This rule will keep with the spirit of a free flow of information in our society."
Passage of the rule means Utah has joined 47 other states, and the District of Columbia, which have similar legal protection for reporters. The shield rule is seen as providing some of the strongest protections to news reporters of any rule or law in the nation.Although the rule has been adopted, it will take official effect when Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham signs the order, which is expected to be within the next few days.