Blog

Winston-Salem Journal — Shield law needed

Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal
June 21, 2007

Two years ago, Judith Miller of The New York Times spent more than two months in jail protecting a source. Lewis Libby, who was eventually convicted on perjury charges associated with the same information, may never do prison time.<

Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal
June 21, 2007

Two years ago, Judith Miller of The New York Times spent more than two months in jail protecting a source. Lewis Libby, who was eventually convicted on perjury charges associated with the same information, may never do prison time.

Just last year, two reporters in San Francisco were only days away from spending 18 months in prison for failing to reveal their sources in the infamous BALCO steroids case. Thank goodness the source identified himself, but the ballplayers at the center of this case have never been threatened with jail and are making millions playing baseball this very summer.

Americans might have to look back to the days of President John Adams and his Alien and Sedition Acts to find a time when the federal government was so intent on shooting the messenger. The Bush administration’s Justice Department has been on a rampage, threatening journalists with prison if they do not reveal the sources who provide them with sensitive information for stories.

No doubt there are some who applaud this anti-press vigilance by President Bush’s politicized Justice Department. They see the press as wanting special privileges. To those people, we can only say that they put too much trust in big government. When journalists protect their sources, they are really protecting whistle-blowers, people who often work inside government and know its inefficiencies and corruption. Journalists keep those names private so the whistle-blowers don’t lose their jobs, their careers and, some fear, even more precious things.

The federal government can get away with threatening journalists in this fashion because there is no federal shield law. Nothing protects the press from prosecutors who do not care about the ramifications that such behavior has on the freedom of the press. (Most journalists would argue that the First Amendment’s free-speech protection is the ultimate shield law, but the courts don’t agree.)

On the state level, reporters usually have such protection. In North Carolina, 31 other states and the District of Columbia, laws protect reporters from being compelled to reveal sources. The shields are limited in most of the states, including North Carolina, but they are effective in barring abusive behavior by prosecutors.

Congress is considering a pair of bipartisan bills that would give qualified protection to journalists. The effort is essential if the press is to continue to provide a check on big government. Conservatives, moderates and liberals are co-sponsoring these bills because they know how important a free press is to democracy. A shield law is not important only to journalists. It is essential for all of us.

Archive

Contributors