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SPJ supports shield law compromise


For immediate release:

Kevin Z. Smith, SPJ President, 304-367-4864,
Karen Grabowski, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-927-8000 ext. 215, kgrabowski@spj.org

Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists welcome the compromise the Obama administration, senators and news organizations reached on a federal shield law that would protect journalists, their sources and the public’s right to know. Although SPJ does not believe S. 448 is a perfect bill, the Society’s leaders carefully examined the proposed legislation, and on behalf of its more than 8,000 members, have decided to support the protections granted to journalists.

SPJ now urges the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass S. 448 quickly so that the full Senate can consider the piece of legislation that is vitally important to a free and independent press.

"As one of the largest journalism organizations in the country, and with the most potentially affected by federal shield law protection, we are not where we had hoped to be with this legislation,” said SPJ President Kevin Smith. “However, after meticulously and attentively deliberating the language of the new bill and vetting it via counsel and the SPJ Government Relations Committee in order to completely understand the impact of the legislation, SPJ is supporting this latest compromise and hopes for its quick passage from the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow.”

The compromise is welcome news after the White House proposed changes to S. 448 at the beginning of October that would have essentially rendered the bill useless. The changes would have weakened the previously proposed shield law and offered little to no protection for reporters who refuse to disclose confidential sources. SPJ rejected those changes and its members supported the Society’s efforts by contacting Senate Judiciary Committee members and the White House.

Although SPJ leaders are pleased with many of the revisions in the latest compromise, such as a broader definition of who will be covered, they are disappointed that the new bill does not cover “non-confidential” information. In practical terms, this would include any interview notes, unpublished footage or other material in which there was no prior confidentiality agreement.

However, SPJ is pleased that the revised legislation provides a shield for journalists protecting their confidential sources in criminal and civil proceedings. The bill covers subpoenas issued by grand juries and special prosecutors, in addition to prosecutors, civil litigants and criminal defendants. This revision requires that the party seeking confidential information first exhausts alternative sources; proves that there is a high need for the information; and conducts a public-interest balancing test before a federal court will compel disclosure of source information.

In criminal cases, reporters may be forced to demonstrate that there is clear, convincing evidence that the public’s right to know is more important than disclosure of requested information. However, in civil proceedings, the legislation provides more protection, including in cases regarding the Privacy Act. The legislation also states that federal judges may overturn subpoenas for reporters’ testimony if the judges determine that the public’s right to know outweighs the need for the government to know the source.

Another change in the legislation that is attracting attention is the inclusion of bloggers, freelance journalists and student journalists to the definition of protected individuals. To define a journalist, a test is applied to assess if the person is regularly gathering information for public dissemination, instead of by whether or not the journalist is paid by a news organization -- a definition that was included in previous drafts of the bill.

Stipulations that have not changed in this version refer to the treatment of information regarding terrorist activity and harm to national security. The compromise also does not allow protections for journalists when information is required to stop or prevent death, kidnapping or substantial bodily harm.

"All along this bill-drafting process we have strongly advocated the protection of journalists and their sources from unnecessary federal intrusion,” Smith said. “We hope soon we can tell the American public that journalists now have some protection to help ensure the stories that matter to Americans will continue to be told for their benefit and the press' watchdog role on the government has been strengthened.”

SPJ is the largest of many media organizations that have supported a federal shield law for years, joined by the Newspaper Association of American, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Radio Television Digital News Association, and Investigative Reports and Editors, among others.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ 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 more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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