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Our View: Doyle should give the public a victory
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Freedom for the public's right to know sensitive information about government or private misconduct could score a major a victory if Gov. Jim Doyle signs the so-called "Shield Law" soon.

On Tuesday, the State Senate cleared the remaining legislative hurdle and passed a bill by a voice vote that would afford protection for journalists from having to reveal confidential sources in court. The bill was passed by the State Assembly in September.

The proposed law, also know as the "Whistleblower Protection Act" was drafted with the consultation of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Wisconsin would become the 39th state to enact such a law. The federal court system currently has no such protection specifically codified. Wisconsin had case law that helped clarify under what circumstances a journalist would have to reveal a source, but the new law would give the case law much needed strength by giving judges clear guidance on the topic.

The State Bar Association is on record against the bill saying the new law, if enacted, would make it too difficult for parties in lawsuits to obtain non-confidential information from news organizations, according to the Associated Press.

However, if the attorneys were able to force journalists to essentially be "investigative tools" for their cases, it could have a chilling affect on the desire of future sources to open up to reporters about sensitive information.

The classic example is "Deepthroat" from the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Would that source have spoke with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward if he felt that he would likely be outed should Woodward end up in court? Doubtful. In Wisconsin, the new bill was conceived based on lawsuit filed by patients of a Milwaukee dentist accused of malpractice, the Associated Press reported. A circuit court judge ordered journalists who worked on a Milwaukee Magazine story about the dentist to testify and turn over notes and research materials.

When a source fears legitimate retribution for serious allegations he or she might make against someone, shield laws must be there to help the reporter keep that person's identity as secure as possible.

As journalists, we must also resort to keeping sources anonymous when the situation warrants such action, but to not even have the option for fear of being called into court to reveal their identities would eliminate that possibility completely and do a disservice to the public.

We call on Gov. Doyle to sign Wisconsin's shield law, and give the public the victory it deserves.