Shield laws protect more than journalists

A new version of the Free Flow of Information Act offers just enough compromise.

In a society that relies on an informed public in order to make democratic decisions, it is essential that the public have access to information. That information most often comes from the work of journalists.

And when officials refuse to provide information, journalists often depend on the help of anonymous sources. But the protection for anonymous sources has begun to erode as the government begins to subpoena journalists for notes, footage and the identities of unnamed sources.

Journalists have no federal protection from subpoenas or being found in contempt of court, meaning they can face jail time and fines to keep their word.

A new version of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, in the Senate Judiciary Committee, offers the kind of compromise that might actually become legislation.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), would work to “maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media.” It doesn’t provide absolute protection, but this compromise could compel senators weary of earlier versions to pass this bill.

The new bill includes exceptions to protecting information related to criminal or tortuous conduct: the prevention of death, kidnapping and substantial bodily injury, and the prevention of terrorist activity or harm to national security. And in any of these cases, the government must exhaust all other resources before compelling journalists to turn over information.

Without unnamed sources, we might never have heard the stories of the Abu Ghraib prison or Watergate scandals. And without the protection of a federal shield law, we might not hear the other stories hidden from the public.

The majority of states offer some sort of shield law, but they fall flat at any federal court. It’s time for Congress to act.