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Federal shield bill would protect journalists’ rights

BY MICHAEL EDWARDS - GUEST OPINION | NOVEMBER 04, 2009 7:20 AM

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The Free Flow of Information Act, a federal shield bill that would protect journalists from having to reveal confidential information, is set to move one step closer to becoming law when it is considered Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Student journalists, bloggers, and individuals seeking to gather information for the purpose of informing the public are protected by the language contained in the new version of the bill, which lawmakers, the Obama administration, and media organizations agreed upon last week.

According to the amended text of HR 985, a covered person is, “A person with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information …”

Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the current definition of a journalist contained in the bill is good news for student news organizations.

“The compromise language is as good as student journalists could expect because it focuses on the news-gathering aspect, not where your paycheck is coming from,” LoMonte said. “As long as you set out to gather information to inform the public, you’re protected.”

LoMonte said this measure is especially important for student journalists, because they are often more vulnerable than professional journalists.

“Unlike someone at the New York Times, which has a huge legal department, student journalists don’t have those kind of resources.”

He said students are additionally important to protect because they are being asked to take on more important roles, acting as local news correspondents or freelancers for local papers.

The bill protects journalists from being required to give their testimony relating to sources for a story. It also guards against obtaining reporters’ phone and Internet records.

The current bill varies in the protection it offers, based on whether the case the reporter may be involved in is a civil, criminal, or national security case.

Sophia Cope, legislative counsel for the Newspaper Association of America, said her organization is happy with the bill as it stands.

“Overall, the [current] state of federal law is very weak in terms of protecting reporters and confidential sources and inconsistent, because each circuit has done its own thing,” she said. “A federal bill would bolster what the state laws have already been trying to do in encouraging whistleblowers while not unduly impeding law enforcement.”

Cope said she is pleased with the definition of who is protected by the bill.

“Our coalition has always been opposed to having a financial component,” she said. “The [newspaper association] thinks it’s important because journalism is done by lots of different people. We wouldn’t want to exclude anybody who had been working with confidential sources and had published some good information that helps our country as a whole.”

Cope also expressed hope that the bill will pass, now that the Obama administration has pledged its support.

A version of the bill passed the House on March 31. A similar bill stalled in the Senate when it lost the support of Obama administration. The administration wanted a version of the bill that would allow the government more leeway in cases that had national-security concerns, according to the New York Times.

Michael Edwards is a staff writer for the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student journalists’ free press rights.


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