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SPJ leaders call for public action in Senate push

For Immediate Release

Clint Brewer, President, (615) 301-9229, cbrewer@spj.org
Alyson Ahrns, SPJ Communications Department, (317) 927-8000, ext. 210, aahrns@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists urge editorial writers across the country to support S. 2035, the Senate version of the Free Flow of Information Act, also known as the federal media shield law.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced this month that S. 2035 is a priority before the Senate recesses in early August. Although procedural obstacles could alter the timing, the Society’s leaders are asking editorial writers to endorse the Free Flow of Information Act in their publications. With the help of these endorsements, SPJ leaders hope to encourage readers to write to or call their state’s senators and encourage them to help bring this bill to the floor and vote ‘yes’ on S. 2035.

“It is critical for this final push for Senate action to have national support because a federal shield law will benefit the public as a whole,” SPJ President Clint Brewer said. “The passage of this bill in the Senate is the final step in protecting confidential sources in federal cases, and the public’s right to know.”

Laurie Babinski, an attorney at Baker Hostetler, SPJ’s outside counsel, has provided the following talking points regarding S. 2035:

• Last October, the House passed its version of the shield bill, H.R. 2102, by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin of 398 to 21. That same month, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed S. 2035 by a 15-4 vote. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stated his desire to put S. 2035 on the floor for discussion and a full Senate vote in early July.

• In early April, both presidential candidates publicly backed S. 2035, which will provide for a federal shield law to protect confidential sources and the public’s right to know. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is now a co-sponsor of the bill.

• State attorneys general from 42 states also support the effort – the National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter on their behalf to Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) before July 4 reiterating their support of the bill and encouraging Senate leadership to bring it to the floor for a vote.

• Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia recognize a reporter’s privilege through laws or judicial decisions, but no uniform federal standard exists to govern when confidential source information can be sought from reporters.

• This bill is not a “free pass” for the press. A federal shield bill will ensure that reasonable ground rules are established for when reporters can be compelled in court to reveal their confidential sources. The current “ground rules” are crafted and “enforced” by the Department of Justice – the very entity that subpoenas reporters. This bill puts that decision in the hands of a neutral arbitrator – a judge.

• This bill does not create a privilege for journalists putting them “above the law” – the privilege belongs to the sources they are protecting. The journalist is only the guardian of the privilege on behalf of their sources and the public.

• A federal shield law is necessary to ensure that sources feel free to speak to reporters and disclose information for the public good without fear of retribution. Without protection for their identity and the information they provide, sources will stop disclosing information and the inevitable “chilling effect” will cut off the free flow of information to the public.

• While newspapers and the journalism community prefer an “absolute privilege” against revealing confidential sources, we understand that some compromises must be made. To that end, the Senate bill provides a “qualified privilege,” with exceptions for acts of terrorism or other significant harm to national security; eyewitness observations of a crime; or if the information is needed for the prevention of death, kidnapping or substantial body harm.

• Over the last year, sponsors of the Free Flow of Information Act have made additional changes to the committee-passed bill in a good faith effort to address Bush Administration concerns. Additional changes will be made to the legislation before the bill goes to the floor.

A list of each state’s senators and their full contact information can be found at http://senate.gov/index.htm.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For further information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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