Media Shield Laws and the Case of KPRC in Houston

Dale Lezon of the Houston Chronicle interviewed me the other day about a pending court hearing in Houston.

TV station KPRC-TV is attempting to squash a subpoena from the Harris County, TX DA’s office requiring the station to surrender unaired videotape relating to DA investigations. KPRC-TV says the surrender of its unaired videotape would violate freedom of the press.

I believe the station has a citizens’ responsibility to cooperate with law enforcement, not only for the purpose of helping to combat crime, but also to help protect innocent people from false accusations or convictions.

Freedom of the press is a good thing, but so is freedom itself. What if the evidence the station withheld contained something that would exonerate someone who otherwise appeared guilty? Is the station’s freedom of the press (something, in a broadcast station’s case, that already is limited by the FCC) more important than that individual’s personal freedom? I’m sure there are reporters who would say so, but I think they are wrong.

And what if the station’s evidence — evidence the station wants to withhold — would be key to the conviction of someone who, without the conviction, would go on to harm others? Is the station’s “freedom of the press” (in quotes because the station remains free to publish these materials, so in a real sense its freedom to publish is unabridged) a higher priority than the safety and security of the citizenry? Not to me.

The news media will tell you that it needs to be free to investigate crimes and corruption. I agree — but not to the point of compromising justice or setting itself above other individual and corporate citizens.

Addendum: Mark Tapscott has an informative and carefully crafted (but nonetheless, wrongheaded!) response covering shield laws generally and Mike Pence’s proposed federal shield law on his blog.

I’m kidding — it’s not completely wrongheaded, but I believe Mark elevates journalists past the point of good public policy. In good time, I’ll post a more detailed response.

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