090710_shieldlaw

Patrick Lynch, Providence
Takes pass on shield law. And what's up with Martha Coakley?
Rhode Island attorney general PATRICK LYNCH should understand why journalists need to protect their anonymous sources. After all, just a few years ago, right in Lynch's backyard, investigative reporter Jim Taricani served a sentence of house arrest — and nearly went to jail — for refusing to say who'd supplied him with a government surveillance tape showing a Providence official taking a bribe.

The Taricani case showed there's a hole in the system. Forty-nine states, including Rhode Island, recognize at least a limited right for reporters to keep their sources anonymous. (Wyoming is the only exception.) But the corruption trial of former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, of which the Taricani saga was a part, took place in federal court, where there is no such protection.

In other words, if Lynch, rather than the feds, had spearheaded the Cianci trial, Taricani might well have avoided home detention. Yet Lynch, a Democrat, has declined to take a position on a bill that would extend the protections guaranteed by his state to the federal courts.

A year ago, Lynch, as president of the National Association of Attorneys General, refused to sign a letter supporting a federal shield law, even though a bipartisan group of 41 other state attorneys general (plus Guam) were on board. According to Lynch, it would be inappropriate for him to take a position because he, unlike most AGs, often calls witnesses before grand juries in criminal cases — a position that has us scratching our heads.

Lynch, by the way, won a 2004 Muzzle for helping North Kingstown police suppress information related to the death of a man in custody.

Earlier this year, a federal shield law passed the House on a voice vote. And Lynch, to his credit, may be willing to rethink his stance depending on the language of the final bill. "He is definitely willing to take another look at it," says Lynch's spokesman, Michael Healey. "He's open to it."

A footnote: it turns out that Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley was among the handful of AGs who declined to sign the 2008 letter. Her office did not return several calls seeking comment.

At least Lynch, through his spokesman, is willing to explain himself.

Dan Kennedy, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University, has been writing the annual Muzzle Awards round-up since its debut in 1998. He can be reached at da.kennedy@neu.edu.

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