Fighting for the public’s right to know

In recent weeks, we’ve heard some stunning news about the Justice Department’s misdeeds. In a silent attack on the press, the DOJ secretly obtained phone and email records from the Associated Press to identify an alleged leak of classified information.

The Twitterverse is abuzz with all of the reasons this is wrong, so I won’t go into them here. Instead, I want to remind journalists and the public that without a federal shield law, we have little recourse to stop this intrusion. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted some version of a shield law for journalists to protect their confidential sources. But we do not have anything at the federal level. We are powerless to stop the DOJ.

As SPJ president Sonny Albarado points out in his “On Shame and the Shield Law” post dated May 20, a federal shield law likely would not have prevented this from happening. However, what it would have done is to provide an independent judiciary opinion on whether the subpoena was necessary and to possibly narrow the scope of the requested information. The AP incident is just one instance where a federal shield law would have provided protection to the journalists and media organization involved as well as preserved the public’s right to know.

In 2009 and 2010, proposed federal shield law legislation failed to pass, but it has been re-introduced. Late last week Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Trey Radel (R-Fla.) introduced separate bills in the Senate and the House that would create the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013. This time around we need to do more than continue the discussion. We need to get a federal shield law passed, and SPJ needs your help to do it.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, legislators will be returning to their home states. While they’re back in their respective jurisdictions, we need to contact our local senators and state representatives to encourage them to pass the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013. The time to act is now. Whether you are a journalist who needs to protect your sources or a member of the public who wants to hold the government accountable, I urge you to contact your legislators today to ask them to support the bill.

For copies of the latest bills, visit SPJ.org/shieldlaw.asp. Visit the U.S. Senate online and the House of Representatives online to get contact information for your legislators. Thank you for your support!

Dana E. Neuts
Freelance Journalist
National SPJ Secretary/Treasurer

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