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A Federal Shield Law for Journalists. Now, OK?

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April 18, 2008

Earlier this week, Senators John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all signaled their support for a federal shield law. Hopefully, the combined voices of three presidential nominees will spur Congress into action. Last year the House passed its version of a federal shield law for journalists, the Free Flow of Information Act, by an overwhelming and bipartisan vote. The Senate…well, the Senate is taking its time with a version of the bill that fails to provide the same level of protection, particularly in the national security arena. Without those protections, the current administration’s overzealous efforts to intimidate reporters will be more likely to continue unabated.

Frankly, a federal law is long overdue since forty nine states currently have shield laws on the books and with the absence of a federal statute, those state laws when appealed to higher courts can be easily undercut. We at the ACLU are urging the Senate to take up the House shield bill, H.R. 2102, instead of Senator Spector’s valuable yet flawed legislation. H.R. 2102 has more meaningful protections for the free flow of information to the public and for journalists. It’s a better bill and there’s no reason the Senate can’t take it up – preferably sooner rather than later.

One of the latest journalists to be threatened with legal action is New York Times reporter James Risen. After chapters in his book, ‘State of War,’ piqued the interest of the Justice Department he was subpoenaed in January to appear before a grand jury in an effort to root out his sources. The Justice Department went further last week when the Times reported that authorities have sifted through the phone records of former and possibly current contacts in an attempt to draw connections between Risen and possible sources.

Risen is one of the Times reporters – along with Eric Lichtblau – responsible for breaking the story of the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program in 2005. Since day one, this administration’s priority has been to expand the role of the executive any way it can – more often than not secretly. So when journalists keep pulling back the curtain, the administration goes for the jugular.

The wiretapping story and the Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA black sites, like Watergate before them, are all stories that have opened the public’s eyes to government misconduct. They are stories that have shaped the last five years of this country’s debate over the limits of our government’s reach and they are stories that would absolutely not have been possible without confidential sources. Since the relationships between sources and reporters are so entwined and so vital to an informed electorate, we should be doing everything we possibly can to protect it.

Those who have read Lichtblau’s book, ‘Bush’s Law,’ can tell you that the decision to publish the wiretapping story was a deliberative and drawn-out process. But in the end, and quite correctly, the public’s right to know outweighed the administration’s impending embarrassment. The role of the press is to keep the public informed and educated. These are bedrock principles of a democracy and in order to keep ours functioning we need Congress to pass a federal shield law. And we need it yesterday.

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