It’s been four years since Congress considered a federal shield law reinforcing constitutionally protected freedom of the press. The proposed law passed the House on a voice vote. But after a Wikileaks controversy erupted, the measure died in the Senate.
Now, there is a renewed interest on Capitol Hill in a federal shield law. Not the least because of revelations in May that the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed phone records for more than 20 Associated Press phone lines and secretly accessed phone records and emails of Fox News Channel reporter James Rosen.
Against that backdrop, companion legislation, the “Free Flow of Information Act,” has been introduced in the House and Senate that would, at last, create a federal shield law for journalists. Meanwhile, the Justice Department last week released internal guidelines advising that a reporter’s records can only be collected if he or she is the subject of a criminal investigation.
Justice’s guidelines are insufficient; the government equivalent of the fox guarding the hen house. Nothing less than federal legislation is required to provide journalists the statutory protection they need to do their job without fear of government surveillance or coercion.
As it is now, said Paul Boyle, senior vice president for the Newspaper Association of America, “a reporter has to be like a drug dealer, dumping his phone” to keep federal law enforcement from secretly collecting his phone records, or maybe even eavesdropping on his phone calls with sources.
That would change, he says, with congressional passage of the Free Flow of Information Act.
Both the Senate version of the legislation, co-sponsored by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-New York, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and the House version, co-sponsored by Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and John Conyers, D-Mich., would require federal prosecutors seeking names of a journalist’s confidential sources, or other privileged information, to convince a federal judge that the need for the information outweighed the public interest in the free and unfettered flow of information.
If enacted, says the NAA, the federal shield law would be “a huge improvement” over the status quo, “which enables prosecutors to decide whether to notify the media of a subpoena and how broad the request should be without any oversight or effective ability of the press to challenge these government actions.”
The House appears likely to approve the media shield law this year. And the prospects that the measure will pass the Senate “are high,” Sen. Schumer recently conjectured.
We join other members of the Fourth Estate in urging Congress to protect freedom of the press at the federal level. As President Obama declared, after the furor over the snooping against AP and Jim Rosen, journalists “should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”
From the Orange County Register