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Friday, December 20, 2013
FOI Toolbox

Raise the shield for journalists

By Linda Petersen

Much has been written about the proposed federal shield law, the Free Flow of Information Act, by our president Dave Cuillier, by Lynn Walsh in the last issue of Quill, and by others.

It’s not a perfect bill.

An amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein defines a journalist as someone who is “an employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity or service that disseminates news or information.”

This definition is a compromise between what journalism organizations and the sponsors and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted. It’s certainly not as broad as we wish it were.

But it’s still a pretty good bill, and it’s better than anything we’ve seen out of Congress — ever.

Critics still say it’s just not good enough, that we should hold out for a more inclusive definition, that we can’t trust that the bill won’t be changed before it goes into law. But surely, if we’ve learned anything from the recent government shutdown, it’s that holding out for a perfect piece of legislation can hurt a lot of people — and leave egg on your face.

And with freedom of information legislation, wouldn’t we be blue in the face by now if we’d held our breath waiting for a perfect bill before getting behind it?

This proposed shield law is no different. It’s a starting place, not an ending place.

If ever our profession was held in high regard, now is not that time. By and large, the public doesn’t trust us (thanks, paparazzi and other unethical people!). By and large, politicians don’t trust us.

Which makes it all the more miraculous, all the more meaningful that sponsor Sen. Charles Schumer is willing to go to bat for us.

This law, if passed, may not help everyone it should, but it’s going to keep journalists out of jail who shouldn’t be there. And that’s certainly valuable.

Even if we journalists support the Free Flow of Information Act, it still has an uphill battle ahead of it to get passed. (And, to be sure, not all journalists think a federal shield law is a good idea.)

We at SPJ are pragmatists. Our profession has taught us to be. So we’re urging you, your colleagues, your friends, heck, even your grandma, to get behind the Free Flow of Information Act. Call or email your representative. Call or email your senator. Tell them why this law is so important. Appeal to their higher principles.

And spread the word. We have a good shield law page with some great information at on how to get involved. See SPJ's shield law page. Read through the information there and then post a link on Facebook, tweet out the link to your followers, colleagues, friends, relatives — whoever you think will listen to you.

Because this bill has quite a climb ahead of it, and it’s going to need help from all of us to get the support to pass it into law.

Are you with us?

Linda Petersen is managing editor of The Valley Journals, a group of community papers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah. She is president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, the Utah Headliners chapter FOI officer, and national FOI Committee Chairwoman. Email her at linda@valleyjournals.com.

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