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Home > SPJ News > SPJ President calls for federal shield law in editorial

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SPJ President calls for federal shield law in editorial


9/21/2009


Following is an editorial from President Kevin Z. Smith on the shield law. It is open for publication:

Shield Law is vital to our democracy
By Kevin Z. Smith
President, Society of Professional Journalists

This Thursday the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will attempt for the second time in as many weeks to pass a bill that, on the surface, seems singularly equipped to give American journalists more clout when it comes to protecting their anonymous sources.

And while some people may tell you this is a bad decision, the question that needs to be asked of this bill’s opponents is – How is a democracy served when its citizens know less about the actions of its government?

Passing S. 448, The Free Flow of Information Act, isn’t meant to uniquely benefit journalists, but rather guarantees that the American public has the valued information needed to ensure its interests are protected. And it will help the press honor its obligation to be a watchdog on our federal government. This is a fundamental column on which our Founding Fathers secured much of the weight that came from building our great republic.

Without stronger rights to protect sources in federal court cases, journalists are at the mercy of prosecutors who have feasted steadily on the media for the simplest and sometimes most absurd reasons. Instead of prosecutors doing their due diligence to find out who supplied anonymous information to the media, it’s been a lot easier in the past eight years to simply drag journalists into court, demand their informants’ names and have sympathetic federal judges toss them into jail until they loosen their lips.

The cost to the media for holding the federal government accountable has mounted and the rise in federal subpoenas forcing compliance with their investigations has reached staggering heights. One Brigham Young University law professor’s research suggests federal subpoenas of journalists are significantly greater now than five years ago. Nearly 800 federal subpoenas were handed to the media in 2007, 175 from the Department of Justice; and nationwide, from all prosecutors, more than 7,000 were issued to the press.

The overreaching effect of this heavy-handed treatment is that journalists, in pursuit of important stories that may reveal government corruption and misdeeds by elected officials, will likely think twice about tackling such projects. Furthermore, citizens with vital information to share may not come forward to the press for fear their name could be compelled with a court order. Many media outlets are already pulling in the reins for fear that one protracted defense of a federal subpoena could bankrupt the news organization. In essence, the feds can control coverage and the likelihood that a story will never be reported by allowing the threatening specter of court actions to stand over the newsrooms of this nation.

Sadly, the end result, intended or not, is that fewer investigations of the federal government by the media will occur and Americans will stop seeing stories such as the secret wiretaps of phones in the name of national security, the behavior of military personnel at Abu Ghraib, the Watergate scandal and steroids in Major League Baseball, to name only a few.

This bill before the Judiciary Committee is the product of three years of negotiations that address who can identify themselves as a journalist and when national security needs to be exempted from anonymous source protections. It has reached this threshold because a lot of thoughtful consideration has been paid to these concerns and compromises have taken place. This bill doesn’t and never has sacrificed national security for the sake of sensationalism.

Now it is time for the committee to move the bill to the full Senate and give these leaders the opportunity to do the right thing on behalf of the American public. Knowing more about our government, not less, isn’t just the foundation for this free flow of information bill, it’s vital to our great democracy.

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