How politicians weakened a legal shield for bloggers

Original draft of a journalist's shield law protected bloggers "engaged in journalism." Here's how lawmakers are making it much less protective.

The House of Representatives' vote on Tuesday for a journalist shield bill is a timely example of how legislation can be watered down surprisingly quickly.

Originally the proposed shield law gave a broad immunization to journalists, including bloggers who acted as journalists. But eventually it morphed into a far less protective form.

Here's the progression:

#1 Original version:

The term "covered person" means a person engaged in journalism and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person.

#2 Second version approved by a House committee:

The term "covered person" means a person who, for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in journalism and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person.

#3 Third version as approved by the full House:

The term "covered person" means a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person.

The original version was reasonably protective, and the term "engaged in journalism" was reasonably well-defined. But by the time our esteemed elected representatives got finished with it, a serious blogger who breaks news (but doesn't have Google Ads on his site) would not benefit from the shield. It requires "substantial" income, even though not all good journalism is done for significant financial gain.

By the way, all versions of the shield legislation are pretty milquetoast when it comes to actually protecting journalists. They say that journalists can be ordered to the witness stand as long as a judge thinks their testimony may be "essential to the investigation or prosecution or to the defense against the prosecution," which is not that significant a hurdle in practice.

I know this firsthand. The U.S. Department of Justice served me with a subpoena to testify in a criminal case in Tacoma, Wash., and then demanded that the judge declare me a hostile witness when I refused to answer certain questions. Even the weakened, final version of the House bill is better than nothing, but I fear it'll prove to be a very thin and easily circumvented shield in practice.

 

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