This summer, SPJ will try to close the deal with Congress on the federal Shield Law, or Free Flow of Information Act.
The ball is in the red zone, and it’s time to finally push it across the goal. It won’t be easy. We will work hard and diligently. We will talk to whoever will listen, and we will succeed. We must.
The law would provide qualified privilege for journalists and protect them from having to reveal their unnamed sources and unpublished works unless the government shows compelling reasons that there is no other way to obtain it. This will not hamper national security, as some have argued. That is specifically addressed in the bill. It merely makes journalists the last resort in government investigations and makes the government show that the information is vital to the case. Too often the first step has been to subpoena the enterprising journalist because of his or her great source.
In July, past president Clint Brewer, who heads SPJ’s government relations committee, president-elect Kevin Smith and I will lead a group of volunteers to Washington, D.C., to help generate final momentum for the law.
We’ve waged this battle for years. Each year we gather more support, gain important ground and collect more stories of journalists who have been subpoenaed for their unnamed sources and unpublished work.
The subpoenas and threats of jail time must stop.
We owe it to the public, who deserves the ability to blow the whistle on government wrongdoing without fear of retribution. We owe it to journalists, who shouldn’t be threatened with jail or fines for doing their jobs. We owe it to former USA Today reporter Toni Locy, who a judge ordered to pay an enormous daily fine if she didn’t cough up a source from a story about an FBI anthrax suspect. We owe it to David Ashenfelter, the Detroit Free Press reporter who is being compelled for his sources in a story involving a former U.S. prosecutor. We owe it to all the other journalists and their news organizations that make a sacred vow with a source, that in exchange for critical information their names shall not be revealed. Most of all, we owe it to all citizens, who deserve to know how their government is running and when it is not running well.
Meanwhile, states continue to move ahead with their own shield laws. This spring, Texas became the 37th state to approve such a law. Many SPJ members have worked to pass shield laws in their states in previous years. I helped work on one in my state of Minnesota in 1998. Of course, the state laws only apply to state courts. We are looking for protection in federal court, from the subpoenas of U.S. attorneys and from federal civil lawsuits.
We have made tremendous progress. The federal bill passed the House of Representatives in the spring by an overwhelming margin. We must set our sights on the Senate. We think we have a more receptive administration and Justice Department, whose opposition in previous years was downright hostile.
We have bipartisan support in the Senate, but still face reluctance from some who would like to see a better definition of journalist (SPJ prefers a broad definition).
The work to pass this bill must expand beyond a two-day trip to Washington, D.C. You as an individual can take part. You can write a letter, send an e-mail and make a phone call to your senator. SPJ headquarters can even help you with the address and phone numbers. Few things have greater impact on elected officials than direct contact from the voters back home.
Your chapter can take part, too. Chapters can organize a letter-writing night and swamp your senators with letters. They need to be personally written and from the heart, but you can share ideas and provide each other support over pizza.
The time has come for the shield bill to become law. We at SPJ — all 9,000 of us — are poised to make it happen this year. We can do it. With hard work and with your help, this can get done.