Note: This page covers information specific to Georgia. See the section on Protecting Sources and Source Material for more general information.
Georgia has a shield law that protects the identity of sources and unpublished information collected or prepared in the newsgathering process, such as notes and outtakes. The shield law creates a qualified privilege that may be overcome in certain circumstances, and it does not apply when you are a party to a lawsuit. The language of the shield law suggests that it may not apply to electronic media and online publishing, but the law is uncertain on this point.
In addition, federal courts in the Eleventh Circuit, which encompasses Georgia, recognize a qualified "reporter's privilege" based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the scope of this privilege is uncertain.
The Privacy Protection Act may protect you against the search and/or seizure, in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution, of materials you possess in connection with a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication. This federal statutory protection applies regardless of the state in which you live.
There is no common law protection for sources or source material in Georgia.
Source and Statutory Text
Georgia's shield law, located at Ga. Code § 24-9-30, states in relevant part:
Any person . . . engaged in the gathering and dissemination of news for the public through a newspaper, book, magazine, or radio or television broadcast shall have a qualified privilege against disclosure of any information, document, or item obtained or prepared in the gathering or dissemination of news in any proceeding where the one asserting the privilege is not a party, unless it is shown that this privilege has been waived or that what is sought: (1) [i]s material and relevant; (2) [c]annot be reasonably obtained by alternative means; and (3) [i]s necessary to the proper preparation or presentation of the case of a party seeking the information, document, or item.
Who is Covered?
The Georgia shield law covers people engaging in "the gathering and dissemination of news for the public." Significantly, however, its coverage is limited to those disseminating news through a "newspaper, book, magazine, or radio or television broadcast." The language of the statute therefore seems to limit protection to traditional forms of media. That said, the CMLP is not aware of any Georgia cases interpreting this language in an online context, and it is possible that a court could construe this language to include websites and other online platforms for publishing information and commentary. See, e.g., O'Grady v. Superior Court, 139 Cal. App.4th 1423 (Cal. Ct. App. 2006) (interpreting similar statutory language in California shield law as covering online news website). The argument might be even stronger with respect to electronic analogs of the media listed, such as e-zines, web radio, podcasts, or videocasts.
What Information is Protected?
Georgia's shield law is broad -- it covers "any information, document, or item obtained or prepared in the gathering or dissemination of news." It extends to the identity of a source, information that would lead to the identity of a source, and unpublished information collected or prepared in the course of newsgathering. The protection applies whether or not you promise a source confidentiality, and whether or not you share the identity of the source with a limited number of third parties. Publishing information eliminates protection for the information actually published, but it does not eliminate protection for non-published information gathered in preparing the published news.
How Strong is the Protection?
The shield law provides a qualified privilege, which means that a court may force you to reveal information under certain circumstances. In order to compel disclosure of information that otherwise would be protected by the shield, a court or other legal body must find that three conditions are met: (1) the information is "material" (i.e., significant) and relevant to the case in question; (2) the information cannot be reasonably obtained by alternative means; and (3) the information is necessary to the proper preparation or presentation of the case of the party seeking the information.
The same test applies in criminal and civil cases. As a practical matter, however, courts may be particularly inclined to order disclosure when a criminal defendant seeks information to mount a defense.
The shield law does not protect you at all when you are a party to a lawsuit (for example, when you are suing or being sued, or when you are charged with a crime).
For more detailed information about the Georgia shield law, see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Privilege Compendium: Georgia.
Federal Reporter's Privilege
Federal courts in the Eleventh Circuit, which encompasses Georgia, have recognized a qualified reporter's privilege based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It applies to the identity of sources and unpublished information collected or prepared during newsgathering.
Unfortunately, courts in the Eleventh Circuit have not had many opportunities to define the scope of the privilege, so it is hard to say whether an amateur or non-traditional journalist could take advantage of it. When it applies, however, the privilege is qualified, meaning that a court must establish three things before ordering disclosure: (a) the information is highly relevant; (b) it is necessary to the proper presentation of the case; and (c) it is unavailable from other sources. Courts applying this test often also tend to weigh the public interest in disclosure of the information against the public interest in promoting a an uninhibited press. The results of this kind of balancing test would be different depending on the facts of the particular case.
For additional information, see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Privilege Compendium: 11th Circuit.
Privacy Protection Act
The Privacy Protection Act (PPA) makes it unlawful for government officials to search for or seize work product or documentary materials possessed by a person in connection with a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication. 42 U.S.C. § 2000aa(a),(b). If you are covered by the PPA, it can protect you from both state and federal officials, regardless of what state you live in. To learn more about the PPA, see General: Legal Protections for Confidential Sources and Source Material.