A reporter may be required in the state of Maryland to reveal confidential sources of information he has gathered but that has not been "published" in a newspaper or "disseminated" over radio or television, according to an opinion released yesterday by Maryland's attorney general.
"It is our opinion," the attorney general's office said, "that . . . in order for a reporter to have the right to invoke the privilege of not having to disclose the source of information . . ., the information must be 'published' or 'disseminated.'"
The opinion, the first given out by the office on the state's press shield law since its adoption in 1896, was issued by Attorney General Francis B. Burch and Assistant Attorney General William C. Wilburn.
The opinion was issued in response to an inquiry from a Montgomery County legislator.
Twenty-six states already have "shield laws" which offer reporters some protection against having to identify sources. Maryland's, however, is one of only four that specifically require publication or dissemination of information before the "testimentary privilege," can be invoked, the opinion said.
Maryland's press shield law, said to have been the first adpoted in the country, provides that an employee of a news organization "may not be compelled to disclose, in any legal proceeding or trial or before any committee of the legislature or elsewhere, the source of any news or information procured or obtained by him for and published in the newspaper or disseminated by the radio or television station where" he works.
"The law's pretty clear. The opinion doesn't say anything the law doesn't," Wilburn said in an interview. "Maryland has one of the narrowest shield laws."
Wilburn said that Del. Marilyn R. Goldwater (D-Montgomery) sought the opinion upon the request of a constituent, whom he said he is a reporter. She could not be reached. The opinion is "merely advisory" and has "really no force," he said.
It could be cited, however, by a state agency or committee seeking to learn a reporters sources, he said. Ultimately, it could be up to the courts to decide whether the state's strict construction of the law is correct.
Maryland's shield law was passed after a reporter was jailed in 1896 for refusing to tell a Baltimore grand jury his source for stories published about the panel's proceedings.
Some state, including Caifornia and Jew Jersey, have moved recently to broaden their shield laws to cover situations where a reporter is asked the source of unpublished material, the attorney general's opinion noted.
"This examnation of journalist's shield laws from other states makes even more compelling our conclusion that the information be published or disseminated before" a reporter can refuse to identify sources in Maryland, the opinion said.