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Wyoming lawmakers weighing shield law to protect confidential sources

CHEYENNE (WNE) – Wyoming could soon join the vast majority of U.S. states that have some sort of protections for journalists’ use of confidential sources, if a bill discussed by a legislative committee Thursday becomes law.

Known as a “shield law,” House Bill 103 would protect journalists in Wyoming from being held in contempt of court for refusing to disclose a confidential source or piece of information during a legal proceeding.

Although there is no federal shield law, 40 states have some sort of journalist protections in state statute, along with eight other states that have court-issued protections.

Wyoming and Hawaii, which previously had a shield law that expired in 2015, are the only states without any sort of existing protections.

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who told his fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee that shield laws are essential to have a free press. It would also provide protection to people who otherwise might be unwilling to provide important information for a news story, he said.

“It’s in the public interest overall to know (the information), regardless if they know the source,” Zwonitzer said. “So when people are given anonymity, they are more likely to say, ‘Here’s what’s really going on.’”

The bill had the backing of several journalists who testified during the meeting. Brian Martin, managing editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, noted without a shield law, journalists are at risk of being caught between the promise of anonymity to a source and the potential violation of a court order.

Josh Wolfson, editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, said while shield laws are often characterized as protections for journalists, they are also crucial protections of the public’s right to know.