New York Times — Protecting a Basic Freedom
The New York Times
April 21, 2008
The effort to enact a federal shield law for journalists got a much-needed bipartisan boost last week. Speaking before a press group, Senator John McCain announced his support for the Free Flow of Information Act. The measure would give re
The New York Times
April 21, 2008
The effort to enact a federal shield law for journalists got a much-needed bipartisan boost last week. Speaking before a press group, Senator John McCain announced his support for the Free Flow of Information Act. The measure would give reporters limited protection against being compelled to reveal confidential sources in federal court. Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton officially signed on as co-sponsors.
This rare unanimity among the three White House hopefuls is an encouraging sign that President Bush’s successor no matter who that turns out to be will understand the need to protect vigorous reporting and the public’s right to know about the government’s conduct. After eight years of excessive secrecy and aggressive targeting of reporters by prosecutors that will be a very welcome change.
With all three candidates now on board, it is time for Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, to schedule a vote in his chamber.
The House approved a similar bill last October by a 398-to-21 vote. That same month, a somewhat modified version sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee by an enthusiastic 15-to-2 vote. Six months later, the full Senate has yet to take up the measure.
In the meantime the Bush administration, predictably, is doing everything it can to try to kill the measure. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have written letters to the Senate filled with hyped and absurd claims that its passage would harm national security.
Their opposition overlooks both the measure’s ample protections for law enforcement and national security and the urgent need to protect whistle-blowers and other government insiders who expose government corruption and wrongdoing.
In an effort to muster the votes necessary to beat back a filibuster threat, the bill’s chief Senate backers are trying to hammer out a few revisions. The bill already contains exceptions to the journalistic privilege for cases where the information is needed to prevent death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm.
One possible change would add a new exception for avoiding harm to children. Another would further ensure that prosecutors seeking to compel disclosure of a journalist’s sources could avoid revealing classified information in open court. Some changes may be necessary to give the bill a realistic chance. But the current Senate version already contains weaker protections for reporters and their sources than the bill passed by the House. Great care must be taken to avoid any more watering down.
In addition to the three presidential candidates, dozens of news organizations, including The New York Times Company, support the Free Flow of Information Act.
Contrary to the administration’s claims, enacting a federal shield law would not harm national security. What it would do is allow the robust reporting that is essential for both the country’s safety and its freedom.