I imagine the general public doesn’t get the inside joke of naming the newest potential assault on what journalists can publish the “SHIELD Act.”
Those of us who’ve been fighting for a federal “shield law” get the message loud and clear.
The law for which we and allied groups lobbied for six years would have protected journalists’ rights not to reveal anonymous sources. Officially called the Free Flow of Information Act, it passed the House overwhelmingly, 398-21, in 2009. It never got to the Senate floor for a vote. The proposed shield died with the closing gavel of the 111th United States Congress.
Instead we get the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination Act. Get it? That’s SHIELD Act. I can just imagine the knuckle-bumps after some politico maneuvered the words into that acronym. The SHIELD Act is no shield for journalists or sources. It’s a shield for the government to hide more information from the public.
The proposed SHIELD Act expands the list of classified information considered to be criminal to publish, and it labels anyone who disseminates it as a “transnational threat.” A direct response to WikiLeaks, this bill attempts to expand the nation’s current espionage law by taking a leap from exemptions for national security, which most journalists support, to criminalizing anyone who publishes any classified information that involves intelligence-gathering. That could be interpreted ever-more widely. Consider what’s been deemed off-limits to reporters by recent administrations, including and despite President Barack Obama’s pledge for more “transparency.”
Jim Dickinson serves up a recent example. He’s covered the Food and Drug Administration since 1975 for various media entities. In an e-mail to equally frustrated journalist friends, he told of a recent inquiry he made, asking an FDA representative how many people had registered to speak at a meeting he was planning to cover. That’s hardly classified information. As he said to the FDA official in charge of his request, what he sought “doesn’t fit any definition of protectable trade secret, confidential, commercial, investigatory, privileged or personal privacy information.” Yet he says the FDA Press Office wouldn’t reveal details that in the old days any secretary or clerk would have passed on.
This assault on seemingly innocuous requests filters down from Washington to the states and cities across the nation and even to the universities training the young people who hope to embrace journalism in the future. The Society of Professional Journalists recently weighed in after officials at Tarleton State University, a part of the Texas A&M system, told a communications studies instructor he could be disciplined, even fired, for assigning his students to file open records requests with the university. Dan Malone had encouraged his students to use this most basic of rights under freedom of information laws, a simple exercise professors across the land assign students so they become comfortable with submitting requests for public information. The difference here? Some of Malone’s previous students following this lesson plan had uncovered a campus crime reporting problem in 2006 and documents regarding a controversial play on campus this year. SPJ, along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) sent a letter reminding the president of Tarleton State of his employee’s free speech rights, not to mention the 1973 Texas Public Information Act.
Sadly, these experiences are hardly unique. Public affairs representatives at government and public agencies serve as gatekeepers even to the most basic and harmless of information. And not just any gatekeepers, but those who presume the gates should be shut until forced open, instead of the other way around. So you can’t blame journalists for being suspicious of the slippery slope where the SHIELD Act may lead. What starts as “national security” becomes a catch-all as officials add additional excuses, er exemptions, to the list.
It doesn’t help when we hear stories of government restrictions that verge on nonsense in today’s Web-connected landscape. When the Air Force restricts its service members from accessing NYTimes.com because it published stories about classified WikiLeaks material, it’s telling them not to look at information the rest of the world, including our enemies, already has seen. How does that prepare them to protect us? When the government restricts Stars and Stripes’ journalists from accessing WikiLeaks material, it’s clamping down on those reporters’ ability to follow sound journalistic methods for responsible reporting: vetting, testing for accuracy, adding other perspectives and refusing to publish that which truly endangers our country or personnel. Refusing them any opportunity to look at the source material everyone else can access defies any common sense. As Stars and Stripes ombudsman Mark Prendergast opined, “Ignorance is not bliss. It is ignorance. And it is dangerous.”
Leaking classified information regarding intelligence secrets already is a crime. The SHIELD Act criminalizes a new class of people: publishers.
As the 112th U.S. Congress begins, we must renew the push for a federal shield for reporters, but not a SHIELD against reporters; for a law to protect citizens’ right to know, not to restrict this most fundamental American right. The Society of Professional Journalists is gathering ammunition to fight both battles, for and against, as we march deeper into a new year.
Hagit Limor, an investigative reporter for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the 2010-11 national SPJ president. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.