Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ Board president, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Al Cross, SPJ Board president-elect, 502/875-5136, ext. 14 or email@example.com; Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists has asked President Clinton to block legislation to tighten security on government information.
The Society, along with 13 other organizations, signed a letter that was sent to the White House. The letter, drafted by OMB Watch, asks Clinton to veto Section 304 of H.R. 4392 "Prohibition on Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information" because of its threat to the First Amendment and the public's right to know.
"This is clearly nothing more than a heavy-handed attempt to stop the disclosure of critical information by vaguely labeling it classified," said Ray Marcano, SPJ Board president and regional editor at the Dayton Daily News. "The public's right to know would be severely hampered by this proposed law, and we urge President Clinton to take immediate action to stop it."
President Clinton has until Saturday to make his decision. The letter the Society signed asks the president to veto or, at the very least, hold back the legislation one year because of its "profound First Amendment implications."
The bill, requested by the Central Intelligence Agency and drafted, in part, by the Justice Department, calls for a broader definition of "classified information," stricter penalties for government employees who discuss classified information and a requirement that government employees must seek advance permission before disclosing information not marked as classified.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the bill's author, Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., said the legislation should have been drafted more carefully.
"While reasonable people may disagree on the issue being raised here, it is such an important issue that it deserves more thoughtful consideration than Congress appears to have given it so far," said Al Cross, SPJ Board president-elect and political columnist and reporter for The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal.
Ian Marquand, SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee chairman said the legislation deserves a veto for more than one reason.
"First, even some of Rep. Goss's fellow Republicans have called it an 'Official Secrets Act,' something we have rejected in this country, said Marquand, special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. "Second, the process which created it was flawed. The bill received no public hearings and was approved through some questionable procedural tactics.
"Not to mention that criminalizing the passage of information to a journalist means greater risk that the hand of government might fall hard on that journalist as well as the agency employee," Marquand added.
Organizations joining the Society and OMB Watch in signing the letter of opposition include the Society's Washington D.C. Professional Chapter, the California First Amendment Coalition, the First Amendment Foundation, the Government Accountability Project, the National Newspaper Association, the American Library Association, the Fund for Constitutional Government, Information Trust, the National Coordinating Committee for the Preservation of History, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Florida Atlantic University.