Without a Shield: A Free Press in Peril
In most states, journalists are protected by some form of shield law; A Federal Shield Law (The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007) is currently being considered in the House Judiciary Committee. In response the Bush administration has voiced their oppo
So why are these shield laws important, and why should journalists be afforded this protection in the first place?
One of the basic defining principles of a democracy is a free press. If information is being stymied by the government, or the political conditions make it impossible for people to engage with the press then the public is robbed of all the facts they need to make an informed decision. Much of the work that journalists due relies on a trust relationship between their contacts, and the material uncovered through the investigative process is not dissimilar from that of detectives. Unless there are protections established than journalists can easily be subpoenaed and forced to do the work of law enforcement thus muddying their position as the Fourth Estate and the trust they have worked so hard to establish.
The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 is especially important to me as had it passed I would not have spent a record 226 days in jail. Had the law been on the books when I was originally subpoenaed last year, the judge in my case would have been placed in a position of balancing whatever evidence I may have gathered against the need for a free and independent press. I'm quite certain that the judge would conclude that my material was not vital to the case and what turned out to be a long arduous ordeal would never have transpired.
Despite the fact that the Bush administration purports to be an exporter of democracy, they have recently come out against the bill. Assistant attorney general Rachel Brand argues that "a terrorist operative who videotaped a message from a terrorist leader threatening attacks on Americans" would qualify under the broad definition of journalist covered by the act, but this position is misleading as no shield law protects those engaged in criminal acts from prosecution and anyone involved in taping such a message would likely be charged with Conspiracy rather than being held in contempt.
Scott Gant, who recently published the book We're All Journalists Now, has a different perspective and suggests in today's Washington Post that "The 'freedom of the press' conferred by the First Amendment has always been a right and a privilege that belongs to all citizens." After all, if only large corporate entities are protected then whose going to act as watchdog for these behemoths that control 95% of the media? Can we really trust FOX News to report on their own indiscretions?