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Register-Guard — Stop stalling shield law

Senate should allow bill to have a floor vote

The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
March 8, 2008

Why do the news media need a federal law that allows reporters to protect their confidential sources? It’s a fair question, and it has a number of good answers.

Senate should allow bill to have a floor vote

The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
March 8, 2008

Why do the news media need a federal law that allows reporters to protect their confidential sources? It’s a fair question, and it has a number of good answers.

For starters, laws protecting reporters from unnecessarily turning their work over to police and prosecutors are already on the books in most states. It hasn’t been difficult to persuade state legislatures, including Oregon’s, that democracy is better served by encouraging whistle-blowers and insiders to expose wrongdoing than by turning journalists into a de facto arm of law enforcement. States understand that whistle-blowers’ identities must be kept confidential in order to protect their careers.

But state-level protections are useless in federal court. In recent years, federal prosecutors have subpoenaed 40 reporters in an effort to compel the release of confidential source information. A few reporters have gone to jail as a result, for the crime of doing their jobs.

The argument that won over 49 states and the District of Columbia found overwhelming support in the U.S. House of Representatives, which passed a federal reporter shield law by a veto-proof 398-21 vote last fall. The Senate version also has broad bipartisan support, but it has been stalled since last October because of ferocious opposition from the Bush administration and its loyal ally, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

The administration claims to be concerned about the national security implications of a federal reporter shield law, but its objections and examples of how the law would hurt national security are laughable. Last summer an assistant attorney general told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department was concerned that a shield law might be used by “media components of terrorist organizations” such as Hamas or Hezbollah to thwart prosecutors. Please.

Senator Kyl should be embarrassed at having to support such nonsense. He knows full well that the bill has been amended to address the government’s national security concerns; it now allows prosecutors to compel journalists to testify about sources if that would prevent “imminent and actual harm to national security” or provide critical information in a criminal case.

News organizations are not seeking an absolute privilege to withhold information. The bill under consideration simply would require prosecutors in criminal cases to show “reasonable grounds to believe that a crime has occurred” and that other avenues to obtain the information have been exhausted.

It’s time for the Senate to stop stalling and join the House in passing a federal reporter shield law.

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