A newspaper reporter has gone about her business in Dodge City knowing she could end up in jail.
Claire O'Brien, a reporter for The Dodge City Daily Globe, didn't steal, drive drunk or commit any other wrongdoing that would put her in such a spot. Rather, O'Brien was threatened with jail time for refusing to turn over notes and other information gathered in her newspaper report on a local murder suspect.
Rather than utilizing his own resources to track down the information, Ford County Attorney Terry Malone demanded that O'Brien hand over her notes from a jailhouse interview with the man charged with second-degree murder. Malone also wanted O'Brien to divulge the identity of a confidential source who suggested the suspect acted in self-defense.
In refusing to do either, O'Brien rightly said she'd rather go to jail. She and The Globe aren't budging, nor should they.
Now the sides are fighting it out in court.
Ideally, Kansas law would shield O'Brien and other reporters from the unwelcome pursuit of such information. But for years Kansas lawmakers resisted, claiming they saw no proof that a shield law was needed.
Now they have such a case.
Lawmakers should know that forcing reporters to disclose information from anonymous sources only cripples their ability to obtain sensitive information on waste, fraud and other abuse that threatens citizens and taxpayers.
Without that protection for reporters, legitimate sources would no longer be able to trust that they wouldn't be identified and exposed to retribution or other damaging fallout. They'd be far less likely to come forward with sensitive information, which would hinder the free flow of information and compromise the public's right to know.
Plus, there's nothing to stop local law enforcement officers, investigators and prosecutors from gathering the same information they would want reporters to turn over.
Most states already have media shield laws. Last year in Kansas, Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, introduced a proposed shield law that stalled in committee.
The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee would protect journalists from being forced to disclose information they have gathered. A party in a court case would have to present "clear and convincing" evidence that the information is relevant, is of "overriding interest" and "necessary to secure the interests of justice," and can't be obtained by other means.
In other words, prosecutors would have to make reporters an absolute last stop, not the first stop.
It's not as if journalists are asking for special treatment. They're seeking reasonable protection for those rare instances in which it's necessary to use an anonymous source.
At The Telegram, anonymity only would be allowed when information from a source was deemed critical to an important story — with no other way to get the information — and when that source would need protection.
Without a shield law in place, we'd also be left to fight unnecessary attempts to seize a reporter's notes or force them to disclose the identity of a confidential source.
We believe reporters should never be an extension of government, or responsible for government's investigative work. They should answer to the public, not prosecutors.
And over in Ford County, Mr. Malone needs to do his job and stop intimidating a reporter trying to do hers.
E-mail Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at firstname.lastname@example.org.