Bristol Herald Courier – Shield law protects free press rights, journalists' access to info
- By: ASNE staff
- On: 10/30/2007 12:42:41
- In: Shield law editorials
Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier
Oct 21, 2007
Thomas Jefferson once said that "our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and it cannot be limited without being lost." Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy, and our founding fathers understood that an informe
Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier
Oct 21, 2007
Thomas Jefferson once said that "our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and it cannot be limited without being lost." Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy, and our founding fathers understood that an informed citizenry is essential to keeping the government accountable to its people and in promoting honest and ethical conduct in our society.
On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved, by a vote of 398-21, the Free Flow of Information Act, legislation I authored to create a federal media shield law to protect reporters from being compelled to reveal their confidential news sources in federal court proceedings. The passage of the Free Flow of Information Act is a major victory for the public's right to know and for the ability of reporters to bring important information to light.
Journalists play an essential role in informing our society. They not only report news and information to the public, but also serve as watchdogs, investigating and exposing what are often illegal, unethical or dangerous activities by both public and private sector actors. But to do that job effectively, journalists sometimes must rely on sources who do not want their identities revealed for fear of personal safety, retaliation by employers, ostracism by friends and neighbors or extreme embarrassment.
Imagine a single mother who works at a factory and struggles to support her family on the hourly wage she is paid. Imagine she knows that there is a flaw in the product being made there - a flaw that could potentially put the lives of those who use the product at risk. A reporter who has heard about possible problems at the plant seeks to interview her for a story which, by exposing the situation, has the potential to save lives and enhance public safety. Without a guarantee of confidentiality, the woman is unlikely to risk her job by speaking with the reporter, and lives will continue to be endangered. As a result, public safety suffers.
It is because of scenarios like these that 34 states and the District of Columbia have existing laws that protect reporters from compelled disclosure in state court proceedings of confidential sources of information. Such broad-based support for assuring the confidentiality of journalists' sources at the state level lays bare the glaring lack of similar protections at the federal level.
During the past several years, more than 30 reporters have been subpoenaed or questioned in federal court proceedings about confidential sources.
Federal prosecutors are increasingly attempting to force journalists to reveal their sources rather than finding the wrongdoers through their own investigations into reported activities. They have used the threat of jail to pressure reporters into violating the promises of confidentiality they made to their sources as a condition of receiving the information at the core of their stories and at the core of the criminal investigation.
In some instances, reporters have in fact been jailed for keeping their promises not to divulge the identity of sources. These actions inevitably have a chilling effect on the willingness of reporters to rely on confidential sources and the willingness of sources to speak with reporters.
Action is needed to protect the promise of confidentiality between reporters and their sources from this unprecedented series of federal government challenges. The public's right to know hangs in the balance because if the identity of sources is not protected, many matters of public importance will not become known. Public corruption and corporate misdeeds will go uncorrected.
In many instances, the critical information that first alerts federal prosecutors to potentially illegal activity or alerts civil litigants to the facts giving rise to a private civil case is contained in a news story that could only have been reported upon assurance of anonymity to a source.
The passage of the Free Flow of Information Act helps to ensure that journalists can continue to exercise the freedom of the press to bring important information of broad public interest to light. It sets strict limits on the ability of the U.S. Department of Justice or a private party to compel the disclosure of confidential sources in federal court proceedings. It carefully balances the public interest in the free flow of information against the public interest in compelling testimony in highly limited circumstances involving grave risk to national security or imminent threats of bodily harm.
By protecting reporters and their confidential sources, the Free Flow of Information Act will encourage whistleblowers to talk to journalists and expose wrongdoing. As Thomas Jefferson recognized, our liberty and our democracy are dependent on a free and fully functioning press.
The overwhelming support that the bill received in the House of Representatives is evidence of its importance in underpinning this nation's tradition of honoring press freedom as a hallmark of our open and informed society.