Westport News — It's Time for a Federal Shield Law
Westport (Conn.) News
Oct. 10, 2007
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (S. 2035) on Thursday, Oct. 4, and it has been sent to the full Senate for consideration. The proposed bill is a federal shield law meant
Westport (Conn.) News
Oct. 10, 2007
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (S. 2035) on Thursday, Oct. 4, and it has been sent to the full Senate for consideration. The proposed bill is a federal shield law meant to encourage the free flow of information between journalists and their sources by establishing a qualified reporter's privilege to protect confidential sources.
S. 2035 is sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and committee members Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as well as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and longtime shield law advocate, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.)
According to Specter's office, "It [the proposed legislation] seeks to reconcile reporters' need to maintain confidentiality, in order to ensure that sources will speak openly and freely, with the public's right to effective law enforcement and fair trials."
Under the terms of the bill, courts could only force journalists to divulge confidential information when it is deemed critical to a case and all other possible avenues have been exhausted.
Similar bills have been considered a number of times in previous years. This year it seems to have a better chance. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia now have shield laws in place, and 16 states have some sort of legal precedent recognizing, to some extent, a reporter's privilege.
Connecticut recently passed its own shield law.
Like Connecticut's, the proposed federal shield law is limited and could be pierced for common-sense reasons such as national security, death, terrorism, kidnapping, significant bodily harm or the witnessing of a crime.
Thirty-four state attorneys general have indicated to the U.S. Supreme Court that the lack of a clear federal standard undermines state law in this area. In addition, more than 50 media companies, organizations and journalist groups support the passage of S. 2035.
While the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not supported the bill in the past, it is interesting to note that DOJ guidelines on these matters are reportedly consistent with those of S. 2035.
So, why do we need a federal shield law when we already have the guarantees of the First Amendment? Good question. Truth is, we shouldn't.
However, more than 40 reporters have been questioned or subpoenaed about their confidential sources in federal civil and criminal cases over the past few years. In short, reporters are becoming the first stop, rather than the last resort, for prosecutors and litigators attempting obtain information about confidential sources.
Recent events make it abundantly clear that something needs to be done or it will be an increasingly difficult chore for the press to keep the public informed about controversial matters of importance. As many have already said, if things continue in this direction, there will be a chilling effect on our "free press." While news organizations prefer to have their sources comment on-the-record, there are times when the offer of confidentiality is required to make a source come forward.
In addition, enacting S. 2035 would go a long way toward clearing up the murky legal waters at the federal level and provide a consistent set of standards for journalists and their sources as well as for prosecutors, civil litigants and the courts.
Readers supporting the Free Flow of Information Act should call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Even senators supporting the proposed bill, such as Sen. Dodd, should hear your expression of thanks for their support of this important bill.