Federal shield law clears committee in House

On August 1, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of the Free Flow of Information Act. If passed, the law would protect journalists from having to testify about information obtained through their news gathering

Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of the Free Flow of Information Act. If passed, the act would shield reporters from having to testify about information they obtained through their journalistic activities. This significant step toward passing a shield law comes one year from the day I was escorted out of a Federal court room and held in civil contempt for asserting a journalist privilege.

As CNET reports,
In response to concerns raised by the Bush administration and other politicians, the revised bill attempts to exclude the "casual blogger" from reaping those benefits by stipulating the protections apply only to those who derive "financial gain or livelihood" from the journalistic activity, Boucher said Wednesday. That broad rule could, however, include part-time writers who receive even a trickle of revenue from Google Ads or Blogads.com.

While the revised form of the law is not perfect, it does appear to offer a level of protection against Justice Department inquiries that doesn't currently exist. Although 33 states have some form of shield law, these protections do not apply in a federal context and several U.S. journalists have found themselves imprisoned in recent years as a result.

The 2007 Free Flow of Information Act was revised to exclude certain journalists and to limit the circumstances in which a privilege can be invoked after both the Bush administration and the Justice Department voiced their opposition to the act. The exact text of these new revisions doesn't appear to be online, but the changes appear to be small though significant. The most interesting change in the bill is that news published by foreign government's as well as any journalist who doesn't obtain "financial gain or livelihood" would be excluded from its protection. Of course, in order to qualify a blogger simply needs to install AdWords or another form of advertising on their site.

Does it really make sense to define journalists based on financial gain? I don't think it does. For one, those who've made a conscience decision not to have advertising on their site should not feel that such a decision could eventually lead to his or her jailing. In addition, this debate is not about commerce and establishing these fiscal requirements transforms the law from protecting the free flow of information to a law that protects members of the news media's ability to conduct business.

Nonetheless, I believe I am still in favor of the Free Flow of Information Act in its current form (though I must read the actual revised text before I can state this conclusively). This bill has been put forward unsuccessfully dozens of times, and if this minor change allows it to finally pass then I think I can live with it. Had this law been on the books at this time last year I wouldn't have spent a single night in jail. The act will likely prevent other journalists from going to jail in the future, and although I abhor the idea of the government forcing bloggers to put up ads (is Google behind this revision?) it's a small price to pay to stay out of the slammer.

About the author

    Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.

     

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