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We Need A Federal Shield Law. And Air Conditioning.

Terri Schroeder,
Washington Legislative Office
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August 14, 2008

A typical D.C. August is made typical by two things — an unbearable humidity and a city that stands as a virtual ghost town with the departure of Congress for its annual month-long recess. As we in the Washington Legislative Office stew, we thought we’d talk about one of the things Congress didn’t get around to before it left.

Right before rushing out of town for August, the Senate failed to move a motion forward on federal media shield legislation by a narrow margin. Even though a bipartisan majority of senators support passage of the much-needed shield law, the Senate — once again — allowed partisan politics to trump good policy. Luckily, this will not be the last word on the fate of the bill. There is still plenty of time in the fall to bring the bill back to the floor and all indications are that the bill is still in the mix.

Passing a strong federal media shield law is critical in order to protect a journalist’s ability to do his or her job and, as always with legislation, the devil is now in the details. As the bill has moved closer to passage with a veto-proof majority in the Senate, its language has been weakened. Recently proposed modifications to the Senate bill come dangerously close to gutting the intended protections. That won’t do. We need a strong and unambiguous shield bill to move forward, but if the bill’s sponsors bow to the will of the administration, the bill will become meaningless.

Americans have all, unfortunately, seen our government attempting to conceal embarrassing or unlawful activities by hiding behind trumped up declarations of national security has gotten out of hand. Imagine if a story about the CIA’s black sites or the administration’s warrantless wiretapping had never been published. How would our government ever be held accountable for its actions if it weren’t for a free press and its confidential sources? Those stories, not to mention Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, only became public after the authors’ sources were assured anonymity. We need to make sure that sacred relationship between a journalist and his or her source is protected.

Did you know that 49 states and even the District of Columbia recognize some form of reporter shield law? The lack of a federal statute means that reporters’ protection — and the public’s right to know — only stretches so far. We at the ACLU aren’t giving up on our efforts to get a strong federal shield law passed before the end of this Congress — nor will the hundreds of other groups and organizations that have been working tirelessly on this bill. Keep your eyes glued to the ACLU’s Blog of Rights for any new developments when Congress returns in September. Until then, we’ll keep stewing…

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