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South Florida Sun-Sentinel — Congress needs to pass Free Flow of Information Act

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale
Aug. 5, 2007

By Earl Maucker, editor

I was minding my own business while driving down a side street in Wood River, Ill., back in 1972 when a police car behind me flashed its red lights and ordered me to pull over.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale
Aug. 5, 2007

By Earl Maucker, editor

I was minding my own business while driving down a side street in Wood River, Ill., back in 1972 when a police car behind me flashed its red lights and ordered me to pull over.

Of course, my first thought was I was going to get some kind of traffic ticket.

I was wrong.

The two officers who pulled me over knew I was a reporter for the Alton Telegraph. Although I had been on the job less than a year, they said they had an incredible story to tell and picked me to take it public.

Turns out these policemen believed their own police chief had set up two fellow officers for a severe beating sparked because the two cops had repeatedly arrested a bar owner, a personal friend of the chief, for after-hours violations.

The officers who stopped me said they had information that would show a number of criminal enterprises involving the police chief.

The deal was, if I guaranteed them confidentiality, they would provide documents, times and places and other critical information they said would tie the chief to these illegal activities.

One of the things they would give me, they said, was a list of serial numbers from weapons that were supposed to be held in an evidence safe at the police department but were missing.

One of those weapons had turned up at the murder scene of an Illinois state patrolman.

These officers were literally in fear of their lives. There would be absolutely no discussions unless I promised them no one would ever know they had provided me the information.

I agreed and the deal was done.

Less than a year and more than a dozen stories later, the chief was indicted and forced out of office, and the three-person police board and the city manager had all resigned.

Although the local state attorney interviewed me with permission from my publisher I was never subpoenaed and never asked to divulge my sources.

Unfortunately, there is a very different environment today, and it’s extremely troubling for all journalists.

In the past, subpoenas seeking the confidential sources of a journalist were very rare.

But that has changed.

In recent years, more than 40 journalists across the country have been subpoenaed about their confidential sources.

In Florida, there is a shield law that protects journalists. It doesn’t offer absolute protection, and that’s understandable.

It does force overzealous law enforcement officials and the courts to seek alternatives to using reporters as investigative tools. But what protections our state offers reporters are not extended at the federal level.

It’s scary.

Recently, in Washington, D.C., alone, an estimated two dozen reporters have been subpoenaed by government officials seeking confidential sources. Now, there is an opportunity to halt this chilling practice.

The U.S. Congress is considering a federal shield law for journalists similar to those in Florida and some other states. It’s called the Free Flow of Information Act

Like Florida’s law, it doesn’t grant absolute protection, but it does require a variety of tests in the courts to demonstrate a compelling need to subpoena a journalist.

Under the proposed federal law, confidential sources couldn’t be used to deny a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial, and it would not allow the protection of terrorists or offer protection that could jeopardize national security.

Last week there was a very positive sign that the bill is moving forward. The House Judiciary Committee, by voice vote on Wednesday, favorably passed the bill. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Journalists are not an arm of government and should never be used in any way as an investigative tool for government agencies. Once that perception exists, the ability for reporters to do important investigative journalism is compromised.

It is one of the foundations of a free press.

From one who has experienced the need to protect sources first-hand, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Free Flow of Information Act should be passed.

Now.

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