A case unfolding in Dodge City is about more than a reporter’s right; it’s about the right of American citizens to have a news media that operates without government interference.
On Tuesday, the Kansas Supreme Court refused to block a subpoena that would compel a reporter for the Dodge City Daily Globe to turn over notes from an interview with a murder suspect and reveal the name of a confidential source who told her about ties one of the victims had to an anti-Hispanic group. As the executive director of the Kansas Press Association noted, the ruling sends a “chilling message” not only to reporters but to citizens who are willing to speak openly to the news media on sensitive issues only if their identity isn’t revealed.
It’s not surprising that Ford County Attorney Terry Malone was pleased by the decision, but his reasoning is flawed. Malone said he couldn’t see what was “chilling” about demanding all of the reporter’s notes from an interview with accused murderer Samuel Bonilla. Malone reasoned that Bonilla wanted his story to be published or he wouldn’t have gone to the reporter. If that is true, why does the court need the reporter’s notes? If Bonilla wants to tell his story, the court should just ask him. Reporters work for the public, not law enforcement or the courts.
The protection of confidential sources is well-established in America. If sources couldn’t have a reasonable expectation that their identity would be protected, any number of important national stories might never have been reported. Without the shield of anonymity, the source who spoke to the Dodge City reporter probably never would have come forward. The information never would have become public, let alone be part of the discussion of a murder case. By forcing a reporter to violate the confidentiality of a source, the court essentially is squelching the public’s right to information.
There are those who would argue that the U.S. Constitution’s provisions for freedom of speech and a free press should cover the Dodge City reporter’s rights, but apparently Kansas law enforcement and courts need some further instruction. A proposed reporters shield law for Kansas was introduced last year and is lingering in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill protects journalists from being forced to disclose information and sources, which, in turn, protects the public’s interest in maintaining a news media that is free of government control.
Attorneys, doctors, priests and other professionals are allowed to shield privileged conversations because that confidentiality allows them to perform jobs that serve the public interest. Preserving the unquestionable public interest of a free press justifies a shield law that allows reporters to do their jobs and share information without government interference.