Federal shield law protects free press
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After years of growing pressure from the federal level on journalists to reveal their sources, the House has passed a bill protecting the fundamental right of a free press.
Indeed, a federal shield law has been a long time coming. In 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for contempt after refusing to reveal her sources to a grand jury. In recent years, more than 40 reporters across the nation have been subpoenaed or questioned about confidential sources in federal court.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have created their own state shield laws, but these are useless when federal agencies demand to see journalists' notes or ask them to reveal sources. For that reason, a federal shield law has been sorely needed.
The law would protect journalists from having to testify in federal court or turn over reporting materials in most cases. The few exceptions include if the information is crucial to protecting national security. The bill is also helpful in specifying who is considered a journalist — a definition that has become increasingly blurred with the growing popularity of bloggers.
The bill states that those covered by the act must regularly report the news and earn a substantial portion of their livelihood from journalism. This differs from state shield laws drafted separately by Reps. Blake Oshiro and Gene Ward. Those drafts identify journalists as currently working for or former employees of wire services, newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations.
On the federal level, it's encouraging to see overwhelming support for the bill: 398 to 21. Interestingly enough, the one Democrat who voted against the bill was Rep. Neil Abercrombie. He sees it as a black-and-white issue.
"The Constitution says that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press," said Dave Helfert, Abercrombie's spokesman. "He thinks that if it's OK for Congress to expand this amendment, then it would also be OK to diminish it."
But there are clearly holes in the safety net for journalists. Protecting the public's right to know is no small matter.
In our nation's current political atmosphere, a federal shield law is needed now more than ever.
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