By: Joe Strupp
Three members of Congress, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), made a surprise visit to the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference Tuesday to urge that editors use their pages in support of the upcoming federal shield law bill.
As part of a day devoted to highlighting the First Amendment challenges faced by reporters — from federal subpoenas to tighter access on government documents — Specter, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) spoke briefly to the crowd of hundreds of editors at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.
The representatives asked for ongoing support on editorial pages in favor of the federal shield law, which Boucher said would be introduced in the House of Representatives in about two weeks. Each said that newspaper support would be vital to the passage of the legislation, which has failed to become law on several previous attempts.
“The shield law is something that should have been passed a long time ago,” said Specter. “The Judith Miller case really brought it front and center for me.” Specter said that he believed Miller’s 85 days in jail in 2005 for refusing to disclose her source in the Valerie Plame case showed how source demands can be abused., “Had there been a serious national security interest, that would have been one thing,” he said about the demand for Miller’s source. “I could not understand it at the time. They had identified the leak and knew where it came from.”
Specter said the press’s ability to use confidential sources in uncovering news is more important, often, than congressional inquiries. “We do more quotation of newspapers than we do of congressional research,” he said. “If newspapers labor under the threat of being held in contempt and going to jail, it is obviously a chilling effect.”
A recent critic of the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys, which has sparked a congressional investigation, Specter compared the impact subpoenas can have on reporters to the recent firing’s effect on other federal U.S. attorneys. “You have a chilling effect on the 93 U.S. Attorneys around the country, they don’t know who is going to be targeted next,” he said.
Then, noting the work that congress has ahead in the U.S. Attorney probe, he added, “the next issue is how we get that information. I’d like to have investigative reporters show us the way. We’ll return the favor by passing a federal shield law.”
Specter’s colleagues in the House offered similar requests for support.
“I want to appeal to you for your help,” Boucher told the audience. “You have a public responsibility to talk about important public issues. Your endorsement of our legislative effort would be of great benefit. What is at stake here is the public’s right to know.”
Pence agreed. “Convey to your legions of readers around the country that this is not about protecting reporters, it is about protecting the people’s right to know,” he said. “We would be greatly benefited by your editorial commentary, and continued editorial commentary.”
Admitting that he believes most newspapers are liberal, Pence stressed that his support for the bill was out of a belief that press freedom is necessary for people’s rights, not political leanings. “The founding fathers did not enshrine the free and independent press because they got good press,” he said. “They enshrined a free and independent press because they believed in it as a cause of liberty.”