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home : opinions : editorials May 29, 2016

9/7/2013 1:28:00 PM
Editorial: Federal shield law needed now more than ever

Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with the press. Thomas Jefferson himself, whose high-minded statements about freedom of the press are so often quoted in its defense, aimed a lot of vitriol toward the newspapers of his day.

Investigative journalists step on toes, ruffle feathers and ferret out secrets that governments have no business keeping and that criminals would kill to cover up. It is a job that is difficult enough without being hampered by government threats of jail and fines.

"The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government," Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in the landmark New York Times V. United States ruling in 1971. "The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people."

Most states have so-called "shield laws" that allow journalists to protect their confidential sources. These sources are people who have crucial information but who have legitimate fears for their careers or even lives if their names are made public. The shield laws, in most circumstances, prevent prosecutors and judges from impelling journalists to testify and name such sources.

This is not the case at the federal level. And the federal level is where much of America's most important information lurks and where abuse of power can be most chilling.

During scuffles in 2007 between the U.S. government and reporters, there was a futile push by the media and some politicos to create a federal shield law. It was shrugged away.

That came back to haunt us as a nation just this year with revelations that the U.S. Justice Department had not only obtained phone records on a hundred Associated Press reporters but also had done so without the AP's knowledge. The Justice Department also had been secretly monitoring the personal email and cell phone records of journalist James Rosen of Fox News and - even more alarming - labeled him a "possible co-conspirator."

Everyone who loves the Constitution was infuriated by this overreach. It was easy to see where this path of "law enforcement" could lead. It is obvious, once again, that a federal shield law is necessary to keep working members of the press free to do their jobs.

Thankfully, this all led to bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill. Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are sponsoring the best legislation to date for a federal shield law. The "Free Flow of Information Act of 2013" is scheduled to go before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Sept. 12. The House is working on a similar resolution.

Senate Bill 987 is logical and balanced. Criteria must be met for a journalist to qualify as a "covered" person. Exceptions to the shield are spelled out quite clearly. It is not perfect but it is certainly workable in its present form.

Like Jefferson, the American people do not have to love journalists to understand the necessity of having a press free from government-sanctioned intimidation and bullying. We encourage our readers to support the Free Flow of Information Act by contacting our congressional delegation.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2013
Article comment by: @ Henry & Heartman

You guys may be able to figure what S987 covers and doesn't cover. I could use an outline from a lawyer. What if it makes a bad situation worse?

Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Article comment by: Mary Heartman

@ Frank Henry
Agreed. The Schumer-Graham Free Flow of Information Act is convoluted enough for the Department of Justice, with due diligence and one other Cabinet member, to get anything it wants from anyone, Even without declaring the New York Times a terrorist sympathizer.

But at least it acknowledges the existence of "protected information." Remember NYT reporter Judith Miller and the Valerie Plame notebooks that would have nailed poor old Scooter Libby. He confessed to get her out of jail in 2005, but even the NYT lawyers couldn't defend her on the basis of president alone.

This nation needs a federal shield law. The chill from that case went all the way down to the New York subways and across the country.

Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2013
Article comment by: The Press is/was Free For Last 237 Years.

1. Now we need a law to protect "freedom of
the press". Seems fishy to me.

2. Senate Bill 987, according to the editor, is
logical and balanced. Am glad the editor was
able to read through the twisted text of this bill.
Maybe the editor can give a review of the bill for
us lay folks.

Thanks and Good Luck,

Frank Henry

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