The state’s shield law, which is found at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8-53.11, provides journalists broad protection against subpoenas for testimony or the disclosure of notes or other documents that they have created or obtained in the course of their newsgathering. The statute gives journalists a qualified privilege, which means its protection is not absolute.
The shield law protects reporters in any “legal proceeding.” The definition of legal proceeding includes grand jury proceedings or investigations, criminal prosecutions, civil suits and related proceedings in any state court. The shield law applies in all state courts and in some federal court cases. It also applies in judicial or “quasi-judicial” administrative, legislative and regulatory proceedings.
Unlike many states’ shield laws, North Carolina’s law applies in actions in which the journalist or media company is a party, such as libel actions.
Journalists who assert the shield law’s protections cannot be compelled to give testimony or produce material without first receiving notice and an opportunity to be heard in court. Any order compelling a journalist to testify or produce material must include “clear and specific findings” regarding the need for the information or material sought.
Although the N.C. appellate courts have not had occasion to apply or interpret the substantive provisions of the shield statute, numerous trial courts have done so. The first reported judicial application of the shield statute was in 2001 in the first-degree murder trial of Rae Carruth, a former Carolina Panthers football player. The law protected a subpoenaed Charlotte Observer reporter from having to testify and produce documents about nonconfidential information from nonconfidential sources. The defense subpoena sought the reporter’s correspondence with a prosecution witness. The court ruled that the defense failed to satisfy two of the three shield law requirements to compel testimony. The defense failed to demonstrate that the reporter’s evidence was essential to his case and that the information could not be obtained from alternate sources, in particular the prosecution witness in question. Since then, other trial courts have issued orders addressing the journalist’s qualified privilege under the statute.