Pensacola News Journal — Press shield law needed

Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal
August 20, 2010

"The only security of all is in a free press" Thomas Jefferson, writing to Lafayette, 1823.

Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal
August 20, 2010

"The only security of all is in a free press" Thomas Jefferson, writing to Lafayette, 1823.

There's a reason why the Founding Fathers put freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution. And why Jefferson said that "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Simply put, a free press is crucial to freedom. It's why gaining control of the press or shutting it down altogether is a one of a successful dictator's first tasks.

Governments prefer to work outside of public view, and having sunshine poured into their back rooms by a watchdog beyond its control is uncomfortable for it. It is why governments even ours never stop trying to muzzle the press.

It is why the time is now for Congress to complete passage of and President Obama to sign a federal shield law giving the press a defined ability to shield its sources from inquiry, usually in the form of a subpoena.

Senate Bill 448 the Free Flow of Information Act is a bipartisan bill that passed unanimously in the House by voice vote and is now in the Senate after winning a 14-5 bipartisan majority in the Judiciary Committee.

The more important the story to the public's right to know, the more likely it is that journalists must rely on shielded sources to get to the truth. Governments, corporations and other interests often have a strong motive to find out who these whistleblowers are. Journalists need strong legal defenses to protect them.

But under the bill these defenses are not absolute, and protect national security especially involving information related to terrorist attacks. Primarily it would harmonize the law across federal jurisdictions, creating consistent and clear rules for judges, those who issue subpoenas (prosecutors, criminal defendants, civil litigants), journalists, and potential sources.

How would it apply to a case like the recent revelations of classified documents by the website Wikileaks? Simply publishing documents en masse is not journalism. We believe the shield law would help all sides by empowering established journalists, who exercise editorial oversight (such as fact-checking, evaluating the motivations of the source, and assessing likelihood of harm), as well as the research, analysis and contrasting viewpoints essential for public understanding.

Court decisions in recent years have put in doubt whether professional journalists can protect confidential sources. And working journalists are currently under a variety of subpoenas to reveal sources who helped break important stories.

It's time for uniform rules, across all federal jurisdictions, to clarify when a source can and cannot be protected.

"Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it" Thomas Jefferson.