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Hawaii House counters Senate limits to shield law

Anita Hofschneider, Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) -- Hawaii House lawmakers are proposing a new draft of the state shield law that would limit the law's scope but maintain protections for free, online publications. The proposal is part of ongoing negotiations about whether to extend the legislation that protects journalists from having to reveal their sources.

Hawaii state Sen. Clayton Hee has been pushing to revise the law to redefine its scope and curb what he sees as irresponsible journalism.

The senator from Kaneohe has caused an uproar in Hawaii's news media community for seeking to remove protections for free newspapers and magazines and limiting the definition of a newspaper to print publications.

Rep. Karl Rhoads, the lead House negotiator on the bill, announced the new draft Thursday. The bill keeps protections for digital newspapers and free publications.

But it accepts some of Hee's amendments by making unpublished notes vulnerable to subpoenas and allowing a defendant in a criminal case to obtain some information if it's necessary to ensure his fair trial.

Rhoads has said that Hee's proposed changes to the shield law go too far. The Democrat says the new draft is a compromise and the committee will revisit the issue on Monday.

Hawaii's current shield law guards journalists from having to reveal anonymous sources or give up unpublished notes in court proceedings. As in other states, the purpose of the law is to encourage whistleblowers to come forward without fear that journalists would be required to reveal who they are. The law has some exceptions, such as when the information is needed to investigate felony or defamation cases.

Hee has been pushing for limits to the law, saying that the First Amendment provides ample protection for sources to speak to reporters. He says his definitions cutting out free, online media would provide needed guidelines for judges.

The senator has the backing of Hawaii Attorney General David Louie, who says the current law is vague. Louie's office suggested several of the changes in Hee's proposal, which the Senate passed earlier this month.

Hee also suggests there is a link between the current shield law and media getting stories wrong. At a hearing on the bill earlier this session, he handed out examples of media errors, including an image of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" 1948 Chicago Tribune headline.

"I am certain that those kinds of irresponsible reporting would not be protected by the Senate's version of the shield law," he told The Associated Press.

The senator also criticized Hawaii's online media, saying there are some "very mean-spirited" articles and comments.

At the same time, he said he can't imagine a case in which the shield law would be needed in Hawaii.

The Democrat, who leads the powerful Judiciary and Labor Committee, said there has been only one court case regarding Hawaii's shield law since it was created five years ago.

"I'm not sure why if it's just one case in five years, those people who have a self-serving interest have behaved in a manner as if the sky was falling," he said. "If there was only one court case, maybe the law is not necessary."

Journalism advocates, including a coalition of media organizations including The Associated Press, Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, say the lack of cases shows the law is clear and effective. They hoped to make the law permanent this year with no changes.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the national group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Hee's initiative bucks the national trend because more states are recognizing that journalism no longer is limited to print and broadcast.

"It counters the trend to see a Legislature deciding to narrow who it will consider a journalist," Leslie said. He said if the Senate version is passed, Hawaii's shield law would go from one of the best in the nation to one of the worst.