Local journalists discuss freedom of information

Marilyn Tennissen May 17, 2007, 9:00am

The protection of journalists and the flow of public information was discussed by the Press Club of Southeast Texas at its monthly meeting May 17.

Texas Senate Bill 966, the Free Flow of Information Act, is a law that will protect the confidentiality of whistleblowers and newsroom work product. The bill was approved by the Texas Senate and is expected to pass the House and move to the governor's desk for approval this week.

"This is a bigger issue than to those with an interest in journalism," said Tim Kelly, editor of the Beaumont Enterprise and a member of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation. "It is a protection for those that shine the light on the outrageous things that government does."

He brought to mind the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, and more recently the problems exposed at the Texas Youth Commission.

"Government works better when more people know what it is doing," Kelly said.

The Free Flow of Information Act provides qualified privilege for sources, meaning protection against compelled testimony to reveal sources or release tapes and notes applies only in certain circumstances.

Kelly said the bill would provide checks and balances, and would ensure that only judges would make the decision if a journalist has to reveal a source.

"Currently prosecutors make the call, they get to decide, the most important thing about the bill would give the power to judges," Kelly said.

The qualifications are that the information is not available elsewhere, that reasonable effort has been made to obtain it and that it has sufficient evidenciary value. Another exception is if a journalist has witnessed a crime, then he would be compelled to testify.

However the legislation does not protect Internet bloggers, Kelly said.

In general, Kelly said in Texas law the presumption is for openness, that public information should be readily accessible. However, Kelly said, for many government agencies the presumption is to keep the information closed.

Many government entities rely on the "10 day" window to provide information in a public information request by the media or individual citizen. But, Kelly said, the 10 day deadline was created to give angencies sufficient time to retrieve information that is buried in a basement somewhere and shouldn't be used as a delay tactic.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston and Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock sponsored SB 966. The bill will substitute HB 2249, the companion House measure, sponsored by Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Houston and Chairman Aaron Pe�a, D-Edinburg.

Thirty-three other states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of law protecting journalists' sources and workproduct, including every single state bordering Texas.

Three other states and the United States Congress also are currently debating such legislation.

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