Signs of early spring in Washington, D.C.: the first hints of blossoms on cherry trees. Irish pubs sprucing up for St. Patrick’s Day. SPJ leaders in congressional offices.
On March 7 and 8, 2002, SPJ visited the nation’s capital to call on key members of the U.S. House and Senate. These visits have been an annual affair since 1999 and serve a handful of important purposes for our organization.
We thank friends who have worked on our behalf. We educate potential new allies about SPJ and what we can bring to the table. We also educate potential adversaries about our views and our strength. In all of those cases, we increase SPJ’s visibility and increase the odds that when legislation affecting journalists surfaces, we may be asked to participate in a meaningful way.
Brief as they might be, these annual visits also give us a chance to find out what’s really happening with legislation that’s important to us. We can be better prepared for changes or developments, and we can learn how to make our views known at critical times. Here’s what we focused on during this trip:
CLASSIFIED LEAKS LEGISLATION
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., still wants to impose harsh criminal penalties on anyone who releases even low-level classified information. We still believe his proposal could effectively turn journalists into subjects of intense investigation and federal pressure at best and criminal accomplices at worst.
Fortunately, cooler heads have recognized that Shelby’s proposal would create a significant change in the First Amendment relationship between government and the media. In addition, discussions have taken place among Washington’s elite in both the media and the Bush administration to reach an agreement that would allow more information on America’s war on terrorism to reach the public, while protecting key sources of that information. We will remain watchful.
This refers to computer systems used to store data or control complex systems, whether they are databases of financial or operational information or command systems for complex facilities ranging from drinking water systems to chemical storage plants to nuclear power stations. One can imagine nightmare scenarios if these systems were accessed by terrorists.
While companies are required to provide lots of information to the federal government under a wide range of regulations, they are not required to report breaches (or attempted breaches) of their cyber-security systems. Congress wants to provide a way for them to voluntarily report potential breaches of cyber-security without fear of public disclosure of the problem.
President Bush already has gone on record in favor of creating a narrow exemption for critical infrastructure in the Freedom of Information Act, but FOIA watchdogs believe existing legislation could allow industry to label any information it provides the government as “confidential critical infrastructure information.”
SPJ’s message on this issue was that private sector accountability should not be sacrificed on that altar of security. We agreed to submit our suggestions to bill sponsors (notably Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona), to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (which likely will hear Kyl’s bill this spring) and to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont (a key FOIA advocate.)
CAMERAS IN FEDERAL COURTS
The effort by certain committed members of Congress to grant federal judges the authority to allow cameras and other recording devices in their courtrooms has made great strides in the past year. For the first time, a bill has passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits action on the Senate floor. A House version also exists but has not yet passed committee.
We thanked our friends on this issue and learned that a version of the bill might be attached to a piece of bedrock legislation. If that happens, it could move through Congress quickly.
We also had extensive conversations with legislators and with Justice Department staffers about the effect of the October memo by Attorney General John Ashcroft outlining a FOIA policy that puts more emphasis on privacy concerns.
The memo is viewed differently by different people. Justice officials believe it is more benign than SPJ or other groups have asserted. Meanwhile, Sen. Leahy has asked the Congress’ General Accounting Office for a formal assessment of its effects.
Some members of our delegation also paid a visit to the House Majority Whip, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), to discuss the overall legislative agenda for the remainder of 2002. The fact that SPJ President-elect Robert Leger hails from Blunt’s congressional district in Missouri helped open the door.
With the able assistance of SPJ’s First Amendment lawyers at the Washington law firm of Baker & Hostetler, we’ll do our best to stay on top of these issues. Next spring, we’ll be back.
For more information on SPJ’s Capitol Hill visit and the issues we’re tracking, read Ian’s full report on SPJ’s website at spj.org.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.
Tagged under: FOI