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Daily Review Federal shield law would compliment the First Amendment

The Daily Review, Towanda, Pa.
September 20, 2010

Pennsylvania's "shield" law is among the nation's best. It provides journalists with a valuable tool with which to inform the public about its government. The law enables reporters to use anonymous sources, which is rare, and to gain access to government information without revealing its sources in court.

The Daily Review, Towanda, Pa.
September 20, 2010

Pennsylvania's "shield" law is among the nation's best. It provides journalists with a valuable tool with which to inform the public about its government. The law enables reporters to use anonymous sources, which is rare, and to gain access to government information without revealing its sources in court.

There is no such "shield" for journalists reporting on the federal government, however, placing reporters at risk of imprisonment and news organizations at risk of crippling fines if they decline to reveal sources of information.

Pressure on reporters to reveal sources has eased somewhat during the Obama administration. But, as noted by John F. Sturm of the Newspaper Association of America, the Justice Department has renewed a subpoena to James Risen of The New York Times, who revealed in a book that the CIA intended to give Iranian scientists flawed nuclear data but might have inadvertently provide actual data. Another subpoena for data from David Ashenfelter of The Detroit Free Press, who wrote about a federal prosecutor who was being investigated for possible misconduct during a terrorism trial, has been pending for three years.

The House passed a federal shield bill, the Free Flow of Information Act, by unanimous voice vote in March 2009.

The bill is far from an unqualified privilege for journalists. Rather, it provides an exception by which a court could compel reporters to reveal sources and information when they can demonstrate to a court that the matter legitimately imperils national security.

The bill passed its Senate committee by a bipartisan 14-5 vote in December.

Since then the posting of classified documents regarding Afghanistan on the Wikileaks Web site has resulted in shield critics ramping up their opposition to the bill.

But Wikileaks does not represent the journalism that the shield would protect. That organization simply posts raw data, while journalists combine raw data, expert analysis, commentary and ongoing follow-up coverage.

The question for senators, especially those who regularly profess their fealty to the Constitution, is whether they believe in a free and unfettered press. If they do, the shield law is a no-brainer.

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