Obama Administration Seeks To Gut Reporters’ Shield Legislation

October 1, 2009 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – According to a report in the New York Times today, the Obama administration has presented a proposal to Congress regarding legislative efforts to secure a federal reporters’ shield bill. The administration reportedly will oppose any legislation that would protect journalists from being thrown in prison for refusing to reveal confidential national security sources. The proposal reportedly claims that the administration could decide what stories would cause “significant” damage to national security and, in some cases, have courts defer to the administration’s assertions.

The House of Representatives passed a version of the reporters’ shield bill that is now stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. An alternative Senate version of the bill, the Free Flow of Information Act, is currently awaiting markup. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia currently recognize some form of reporters’ privilege, either through statute or common law.

The American Civil Liberties Union strongly supports the concept of a privilege for reporters, and has concerns that the current bill does not go far enough in protecting journalists from having to disclose confidential sources in civil proceedings while providing an overly broad exception for national security cases. The Obama administration’s proposal exacerbates those concerns.

The following can be attributed to Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office:

“The Obama administration’s stance on this issue is entirely disappointing. Historically, the media has bent over backwards to give deference to legitimate national security claims of presidential administrations while, by contrast, several administrations have claimed national security to avoid the publication of embarrassing facts. The current bill awaiting markup already has a balancing test weighted heavily in favor of administration assertions of national security.

“Inserting influence into court cases by telling our judicial branch to ‘just trust us’ on issues of national security ignores the constitutional role our courts play. This is another troubling example of the administration’s policies falling short of its rhetoric, in this case regarding the need to rein in overreaching executive powers. The last thing we need is to remove independent judicial discretion in assessing the reasonableness of government claims. We can’t undermine the courts and, frankly, ‘just trust us’ doesn’t cut it anymore.”

To read the ACLU’s report urging the passage of a federal shield law, go to: www.aclu.org/freespeech/gen/29028pub20070314.html

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