In 2009, a Fox News reporter named James Rosen concluded an investigation into the federal government's reactions to statements from North Korea. In the course of his investigation, Rosen allegedly obtained classified information leaked by Stephen Kim, a former intelligence analyst employed by the State Department.
The Justice Department soon indicted Kim under the Espionage Act for leaking this information; Kim eventually pleaded guilty to a single felony charge.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department deemed Rosen a possible "co-conspirator" and issued a secret warrant to gather evidence against him – including his telephone and email records. The department delivered a subpoena to Google, which then turned over Rosen's emails. But Rosen was never charged with any crime.
Rosen's experience provides just one example of the importance of shield laws, which offer legal protections to journalists and prevent them from being forced to reveal their sources. While news organizations have long pushed for a federal shield law, Congress has been unable to muster up the will to pass one.
However, nearly every state in the nation has recognized the value of shield laws, and Montanans can be particularly proud that our state offers some of the strongest protections for journalists. Yet even Montana's laws wouldn't prevent a company like Google or Microsoft from turning over a reporter's emails to government agents.
In this age of rapidly advancing communications technology, it's clear that our laws must be updated to cover electronic communications. And thankfully, Republican Rep. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings has introduced a measure that would close this loophole in Montana's shield laws.
House Bill 207, which was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee last week, would bar state agencies from requesting that communication companies turn over a reporter's electronically stored information. Currently, such information is, technically, not covered under the state shield law.
"My bill does not change existing law, but adds to it based on a new age of digital communications," Zolnikov explained in news reports last week. He added that the bill was just one of a slate of legislative measure he is sponsoring concerning privacy rights.
If HB 207 passes, as it should, Zolnikov believes it will make Montana the first state in the nation to offer protections for digital information.
It's a smart move – one that ensures journalists can continue to do their jobs effectively and protect the sources they rely on to bring inside information to light.