While Boston journalists argue, laws to protect news sources fail

Advocates of a ``shield law'' to allow Massachusetts journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources were handed four setbacks yesterday. But they say they're not quitting. Within a matter of hours state lawmakers shot down three proposals for such a law. At the same time, the state Supreme Judicial Court decided not to set guidelines under which members of the news media could decline to divulge the identity of informants.

Disagreement within journalism ranks on the issue of source protection contributed to the downfall of the various measures. The Boston Globe, for example, opposed such protection, but the Boston Herald endorsed it.

The actions came less than a week after Susan Wornick, a Boston television reporter, was cited for contempt for refusing to name a man she had interviewed, who said he witnessed a drugstore looting by police officers.

Ms. Wornick was sentenced to three months in prison, but the source came forward at the 11th hour, and she was freed. Nevertheless, the case focused attention anew on the Bay State's lack of even a limited shield measure.

While relieved that her jailing was averted, Wornick says she is no less convinced that some measure of protection for confidential news sources is needed. She and others, including Reps. Barbara Gray (R) of Framingham and Gregory Sullivan (D) of Norwood, say they are concerned that without the assurance of anonymity, those with important information will hesitate to come forward.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis appointed a special task force 15 months ago to study the question. The group recommended that the state Supreme Court establish limited shielding regulations.

The Dukakis panel of lawyers, judges, and laymen, headed by Harvard law Prof. Laurence H. Tribe, decided that ``having the court set up guidelines is appropriate, since at issue are US constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.''

The gubernatorial study panel had recommended a limited shield, under which a reporter, editor, publisher, researcher, or anyone else with confidential information could be required to divulge his source only when those seeking such information could demonstrate: (1) that it was needed to avoid the violation of someone's constitutional rights or the miscarriage of justice; or (2) that ``alternative and less oppressive means of obtaining that information have been exhausted.''

The state Supreme Court, in rejecting the proposal, said the question of protecting sources would be best handled on a case-by-case basis.

Governor Dukakis, expressing disappointment over the defeat of various shield measures, said he is ``no less supportive of the idea,'' but declined to say whether he intends to press further.

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