New York Times — A Shield for the public
The New York Times
Sept. 20, 2007
For freedom of the press to be more than a promise and for the public to be kept informed about the doings of its government, especially the doings that the government does not want known, reporters must be able to pursue the news wherever it
The New York Times
Sept. 20, 2007
For freedom of the press to be more than a promise and for the public to be kept informed about the doings of its government, especially the doings that the government does not want known, reporters must be able to pursue the news wherever it takes them. One of the most valuable tools they have is the ability to protect the names of confidential sources people who provide vital information at the risk of their jobs, their careers and sometimes even their lives.
That is why it is so important for Congress to finally pass a federal shield law for journalists and why we commend Senators Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, for a compromise bill designed to achieve passage.
The bill would create a qualified privilege, which is what this newspaper and other news organizations have sought, not an absolute protection against revealing a source’s name under any conceivable circumstance.
The new measure does not contain everything we would have liked. The shield for sources in the sphere of national security is weaker than in a bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee in August and an earlier proposal by Senators Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, and Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut.
Under the new bill, in order to compel disclosure of a source, the government would have to show that withholding the information is necessary to prevent a specific act of terrorism against the United States or would create “significant harm to national security” that outweighs the public interest in maintaining the flow of information. That is a broad standard and much will depend on judges exercising care to ensure that the government meets its burden to prove that the alleged harm to national security is real.
However, some tweaking was necessary to reassure hesitating senators that the bill would not permit journalists to withhold information that is truly necessary to protect the United States.
The compromise has the support of dozens of news organizations, including The New York Times Company. Having worked for months to achieve this accord, Senators Specter and Schumer, and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, must do everything in their power to make sure that there is no further watering down of the protection for reporters and the whistle-blowers, or other insiders who will not speak without a pledge of confidentiality.
Passage of a federal shield law would be a major achievement. Some 32 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, and 17 other states have recognized a reporter’s privilege to maintain the confidentiality of sources through judicial decisions. Prosecutions have not suffered, and it is past time for Congress to act.
In fact, a virtue of the Specter-Schumer bill is that it removes any excuse by lawmakers to avoid taking a step vital for the press’s ability to report, so the public can exercise its right to know what government is doing and to make informed judgments.