Editorials Support Federal Shield Law — As Hearing Looms

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By: Joe Strupp

As chances for a federal shield law to protect journalists’ anonymous sources move closer to reality with a Senate committee set to consider the latest proposal on Thursday, newspapers nationwide have been weighing in with their support for the idea via editorials all week.

The New York Times was among those to kick off the latest editorial campaign for the federal protection with an editorial Sept. 20 that declared, “For freedom of the press to be more than a promise and for the public to be kept informed about the doings of its government, especially the doings that the government does not want known, reporters must be able to pursue the news wherever it takes them. One of the most valuable tools they have is the ability to protect the names of confidential sources ? people who provide vital information at the risk of their jobs, their careers and sometimes even their lives.”

The Los Angeles Times weighed in two weeks ago in anticipation of the coming Capitol Hill fight. Using the recent case of Steven Hatfill, the physician suing the federal government for linking him to the 2001 anthrax attacks and whose lawyers are demanding reporters’ sources in the case, the Times urged that a federal shield law be approved.

“Most news organizations prefer to be able to identify sources of information,” the L.A. Times’ editorial stated. “But without assurances of confidentiality, some important stories will go uncovered. The investigation of the anthrax attacks was an important story. So was the fact that the government was focusing, albeit mistakenly, on a particular individual.”

In the past few days alone, a number of newspapers have published arguments in favor of the proposed law, with more likely on Thursday, citing the need for protection in an era when more reporters are being sought for sources.

Excerpts from several of the most recent editorials are posted below:

The purpose of a free press, and of the First Amendment that makes a free press in the United States possible, is to tell you, the citizens, what is happening in your country ? especially in the halls of power. The primary way we have of fulfilling that constitutional mandate, lacking a clairvoyance clause, is for people who work in the halls of power to tell us. The purpose of the proposed Free Flow of Information Act is to help reporters do their job in a way that they, and their sources, don?t have to fight off fishing expeditions from federal prosecutors and other lawyers who might demand that the press become an arm of the government. It deserves to become law.


The excesses of the CIA-leak investigation made clear the need for a federal shield law to protect reporters and their sources. Indeed, the need for such a law has been clear since 1972, when the Supreme Court upset a long-standing understanding that journalists were more or less immune from government investigations into their reporting.
Since then, federal prosecutors have successfully chipped away at that protection and, by one count, more than 40 reporters have been questioned about their sources and at least two have wound up in jail.


The shield law, S.2035, has been rewritten to comply with concerns raised about national security and complaints from the U.S. Department of Justice. It is unlikely that any bill offering protection to confidential sources will be acceptable to the Justice Department, so any new opposition should matter little to the committee members.
If judged on its merits, the shield bill should have strong, bipartisan support in the Senate. It is sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter and New York Democrat Charles Schumer. Both have spoken eloquently about recognizing a reporter?s relationship with sources and understanding the need for confidential sources as conduits in the free flow of information.


This Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on a bill that directly affects your ability to be an informed citizen. The Free Flow of Information Act, sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Charles Schumer of New York, would at last create a qualified privilege shielding journalists from having to reveal confidential sources in federal court cases. Many states have such a law on their books, with no evidence that they impede justice.


Journalists generally share the sources of their information with readers and viewers. In rare cases, however, sources ask to remain unnamed. They may fear losing their jobs or encountering other forms of retribution if their identities are ever disclosed. Open government and vigorous news gathering can hinge on the trust that a journalist will not betray the confidence of a source, even at the behest of a prosecutor or other official.


In this age of information overload, sometimes it’s difficult to separate real reporting from urban myth. But some journalism breaks through the noise and makes history by uncovering a grave misdoing or shining light on the darkest corners of government. Americans may never have known about the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the Abu Ghraib prison scandal had reporters not aggressively pursued those stories and been willing to risk the use of confidential sources.

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