The Utah Supreme Court struck a blow for freedom and accountability this week by approving a reporter shield rule. From now on, reporters who promise anonymity to a source with information vital to the public will not face the threat of jail time.
And that means people who know about corruption and who have lost confidence in other avenues for rectifying the problem can make those problems known without fear.
As with all protections, this one is not absolute, nor should it be. The court came to a reasonable balance that will allow judges to compel reporters to provide information if convinced the information is vital, relevant and cannot be obtained any other way. But that decision must be weighed against society's need for a free and independent media that can keep a check on abuses of power, and a judge would have to view the relevant information in private before making a final decision as to whether it should be released.
For years, Utah lawmakers have refused to pass a law that would do the same thing, despite the fact that Utah was one of only three states without some form of protection for reporters. This rule is as good as a law because it will govern all court proceedings. It also demonstrates that Utah's top jurists understand the value of a free and vibrant media, and that they appreciate how corruption often will not come to light unless good people can relay information without fear of reprisal.
Make no mistake, the rule is needed. The free flow of information has come under attack from time to time. Last year, a reporter at this newspaper faced the threat of being forced to testify concerning where he obtained sensitive information.
Nationally, the need for a federal shield law has become evident in recent years. A New York Times reporter was jailed for 85 days for refusing to hand over notes she had taken from interviews, despite the fact she never published a story. Reporters who wrote a book exposing important information regarding Barry Bonds' alleged use of performance-enhancing substances faced the threat of jail time for not revealing their sources.
Of course, reporters are not perfect. But published falsehoods tend to get exposed by other media in a competitive marketplace of information. Thanks to Utah's Supreme Court, however, official power here has much less chance to protect itself in secret with threats and intimidation.