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

Josh Wolf
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.
Josh Wolf
3 min read
Kucinich Meeting
Josh Wolf and Lucy Morrillon meeting with Representative Dennis Kucinich Photo Courtesy of John Shinkle at The Politico
I headed to Washington DC last month to meet with members of Congress and their staff about the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 which had just been introduced days before my visit. For those that don't know, the bill would extend the same protections journalists are afforded in most state courts to the Federal level. These laws are generally known as shield laws and offer legal protections against forcing journalists to testify about their work, and there is some level of shield afforded to journalists in almost every state.

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?