The laws that protect journalists are continuing to be defined as news media outlets grow and expand with technology.
While most states have shield laws or other forms of protection for journalists in place, the U.S. Federal government does not have any national shield laws enact. What is a shield law you might be asking yourself, well it is not the organization portrayed in Marvel’s The Avengers lead by Nick Fury. Shield laws are what protect journalists from being forced to disclose sources and the confidential information from those sources. Currently these laws only apply to state courts but shield laws are being introduced on a national level.
On a national level the shield law has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and being introduced to the Senate Floor once again. While shield legislation has stalled before, its supporters are confident with this bill. The bill should be defining what constitutes a reporter or journalist. Taking it out of the hands of the government to decide who is protected and who isn’t as a legitimate reporter. Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham introduced the Free Flow of Information Act on May 16, 2013.
Continuing with the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 (S. 987), it does give some definition as to a “covered person” in the sec. 11 Definitions. With defining journalist as a “covered person”, it does not define journalism. The protection is not really for the journalist but is for the individual who does not feel safe coming forward for any reason. But still under the FFOIA of 2013 there are some exceptions such as criminal conduct, prevention of death, kidnapping, substantial bodily harm, child protection, infrastructure protection, and to prevent terrorist activity. In these events the government could subpoena a journalist for information involving these activities.
While many journalists feel this is a step in the right direction, and in a coalition letter media companies such as News Corp, The Associated Press and NPR are backing this legislation to protect journalists and their sources.
In the media coalition support letter it states, “We write again to urge you to favorably report the bill and oppose any amendments that would weaken the bill when it is again considered by the Committee on September 12. In the wake of revelations that the Justice Department secretly obtained the communications records of AP and Fox News reporters, a federal shield law is needed now more than ever to prevent government overreach and protect the public’s right to know.”
In an article from Politico by Dylan Byers, it states in the Judiciary Committee meetings the definition of “journalist” was heavily debated to not include protection for WikiLeaks. It goes on to state, “In those meetings, Sen. Schumer also sided against WikiLeaks, but said there should be greater scope for bloggers and other journalists not aligned with traditional news organizations.” Also additionally a person can be deemed appropriate by a federal judge to fall under the protections of the shield law as long as their newsgathering was lawful.
Local resident who works as a freelance web designer, Michael Brendan said about shield laws, “The common citizen with a phone can break the most important news and share that news with a journalist. As technology grows it is easier to get access to information. Laws are being put into place to protect journalists.”
Brendan, also stated about bloggers as journalists, “Yes, I think anyone who reports news or information should be protected as a journalist.”
@SenCornyn's amendment raises broad question: Does a federal Shield Law conflict w/ Press Clause by defining who is and isn't a journalist?
— Morgan Weiland (@morganweiland) September 12, 2013
Some argue that there is more at stake here. In an article on Index Josh Stearns argues, “It is a sad irony that a bill meant to expand press freedom could in fact erode First Amendment rights of non-traditional media makers.” Going on to say, “This could all be avoided, and the bill could be greatly strengthened and simplified by defining journalism as an act, a process that anyone can participate in, instead of a profession limited to a few practitioners. As the bill moves forward, making that change should be our top priority.”
As it stands right now the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 (S. 987), is a step in the direction most states have already gone the distance on.