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Society Urges Clinton to Veto Legislation That Would Tighten Disclosure of Classified Information


Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ Board president, 937/225-2323 or ray_marcano@coxohio.com; Al Cross, SPJ Board president-elect, 502/875-5136, ext. 14 or across@spj.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or ian@kpax.com

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.



WHEREAS, the United States Congress has approved H.R. 4392, otherwise known as The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001, and

WHEREAS, Section 304 of that legislation creates a new felony offense for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and makes that offense punishable by prison terms, and

WHEREAS, the language of Section 304 creates an unreasonably vague and broad definition of "classified" material, and

WHEREAS, the implementation of Section 304 would create an unconstitutional restriction of the First Amendment rights of government employees, and

WHEREAS, under Section 304, a journalist who receives classified information from a government employee would be at greater risk of government pressure to reveal the source of the information, by means of subpoenae, threats of imprisonment, etc., and

WHEREAS, H.R. 4392 passed through the entire legislative process without public hearing, without normal committee jurisdiction and with the use of unscheduled voice votes, and

WHEREAS, leading members of Congress have questioned the propriety of Section 304 and the process in which it was approved, and

WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists informed Congress of its concerns over the potential impact of Section 304 in a letter in July of 2000,

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT the 2000 convention of the Society of Professional Journalists calls SPJ members and chapters to voice their protests to their Representatives and Senators about the process by which this legislation was passed, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the convention calls on President Clinton to veto H.R. 4392 and demand that Congress hold public hearings on Section 304.

Submitted by the FOI Committee, October 28, 2000

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