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Daily News Journal — New shield law would protect information flow

The Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Aug. 1, 2007

As Barry Bonds closes in on baseball’s all-time home run record, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering a federal shield law to protect the confidential relationship between news reporters and their sources.

The Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Aug. 1, 2007

As Barry Bonds closes in on baseball’s all-time home run record, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering a federal shield law to protect the confidential relationship between news reporters and their sources.

The House Judiciary Committee should review the case of the BALCO steroid scandal, keep an eye on Bonds’ when he steps to the plate, then pass the Free Flow of Information Act when it is introduced this morning.

San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada were subpoenaed in 2006 to testify about their use of leaked grand jury testimony from the BALCO steroid investigation in writing the book, “Game of Shadows.” In it, they detailed Bonds’ alleged use of steroids beginning in 1999 to transform his body into a home-run hitting machine.

The two reporters refused to testify and were sentenced to prison, avoiding jail time only after Troy Ellerman, the attorney for BALCO founder Victor Conte, pleaded guilty last February to leaking the information.

It never should have gotten that far because when the government starts prying into the work of journalists, it puts a chilling effect on the Fourth Estate.

The writing of Williams and Fainaru-Wada led Major League Baseball to institute a new policy on performance enhancing drugs, and since then several players have been suspended for violations, but not Bonds, who is on the brink of breaking Henry Aaron’s mark of 755 career home runs.

The government’s attempt to force Williams and Fainaru-Wada to give up their source is just one example of government overreaching its bounds.

The Free Flow of Information Act might not stop it, but it would give the Department of Justice clearer rules to follow. Imagine what types of stories never would have been reported without confidential sources the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Walter Reed Army Medical Center conditions, and, the most famous, Watergate.

Reporters wouldn’t have absolute privilege under the act being considered. They could still be compelled to identify sources to stop acts of terrorism or threats to national security, as well as the names of people who disclose trade secrets or financial and medical information in violation of federal law. The court must also determine that the need to give up a confidential source “outweighs the public interest” of disseminating news.

Thirty-three states, including Tennessee, and the District of Columbia already have shield laws. But more is needed to stop government from reaching into the nation’s newsrooms.

Passage of the Free Flow of Information Act would affirm and clearly define the standards for those times when reporters can be forced to testify and give up information. It should be used sparingly and not to stop investigative reporting on the use of steroids in the national pastime.

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