UPDATED 8/31/12 11:49 a.m.

Media outlets and First Amendment advocates are already gearing up for a fight next legislative session over a state law that protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources and turn over notes.

Hawaii’s shield law, as it’s commonly called, will sunset June 30 unless lawmakers take action.

The Society for Professional Journalists, Media Council Hawaii, Honolulu attorneys and others are forming a coalition of supporters in their mission to make the law permanent and stave off attacks to weaken it.

Gerald Kato, a University of Hawaii journalism professor and Media Council Hawaii board member, said the news media needs to mobilize now for the upcoming legislative session that starts in January.

“It’s a good law, as written … one of the best in the country,” he said Thursday. “It should be a permanent part of Hawaii law and not fade into the sunset.”

Kato and others who have worked on the law since its inception in 2008 expect an uphill battle primarily against the state Attorney General’s office. The office drafted a report last year recommending the removal of key provisions, including the protection against forced disclosure of journalists’ unpublished material.

Some states’ shield laws only protect journalists from disclosing their sources, while others, like Hawaii, also include their notes.

“Many of the things the current AG (David Louie) wants to do involve basically going back to square one,” Kato said. “The current law is the product of compromise by both the former AG (Mark Bennet) and representatives of the media. … To try to undo that compromise I think would be a mistake.”

The Attorney General’s office could not be reached for comment Thursday.

UPDATED Josh Wisch of the Attorney General’s office said Friday that the position between the two administrations has remained relatively consistent. He said the office has never attacked the law, but has recommended changes.

In particular, the AG wants an exception for exculpatory evidence in criminal cases.

“If someone faces the prospect of a criminal penalty, which could include prison time, and there’s information out there that could prove their innocence, they should be able to get it,” Wisch said.

The other change the AG wants is an exception in the law to compel journalists to release their notes under certain circumstances — specifically, unpublished information that was given with no expectation that it would be kept confidential and that doesn’t reveal the identity of the source, Wisch said.

Jeff Portnoy, a prominent First Amendment attorney who helped draft the law four years ago, said Thursday that this will be a critical year for the existence of the shield law in its present form.

“If the media and public don’t mobilize then a lot of mischief can get done,” he said. “Unfortunately there are those out there — the AG is leading the charge — (trying) to make such big changes to the law that we’d end up better off with no law.”

Louie also wants to change protection for bloggers. Some states afford bloggers no protections, while others lump them in with traditional media.

Hawaii allows anyone to claim protections under the shield law so long as they meet certain conditions, such as proving they write regular reports of substantial public interest.

“Frankly, the relationship between the administration and the media is not exactly the best,” Portnoy said.

He said he hopes Louie, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and any opposition in the state Senate can be convinced of the importance of preserving the shield law in its current form and making it permanent.

“There have been no problems with it, so why tinker with it?” Portnoy said.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle signed off on the current shield law in 2008, but it had a three-year sunset provision. Lawmakers extended it in 2011 for another two years, deciding not to make it permanent in part because members of the Judiciary’s evidence committee wanted to evaluate the law.

The committee recommended in a December 2011 report that the Legislature make the shield law permanent. But the Standing Committee on the Rules of Evidence suggested lawmakers revisit sections concerning bloggers, defamation and journalists’ unpublished information.

Kato and other supporters simply want the current shield law to be made permanent by removing the sunset provision.

“We should be proud of the fact that it’s on the books now,” Kato said. “The news media should stand up and be counted in terms of fighting for it in front of the Legislature next year.”

Stirling Morita, who heads SPJ’s Hawaii Chapter, said Hawaii’s shield law is the broadest in the country in terms of protecting sources of information for media.

“The law is important because it allows the media to delve into stories without having to worry about having to answer for every source that’s unattributed or unnamed in an article,” he said. “The public’s right to know is enhanced with this.”

Here’s the state Judiciary committee’s December 2011 report to the Legislature and related testimony and memos on the shield law:

UPDATED Here’s testimony the Attorney General’s office submitted on the shield law in 2008.

Here’s testimony the Attorney General’s office submitted on the shield law in 2012.

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