Time for a shield law to protect reporters

Congress should vote to extend protection to reporters and their sources.

For the last year, the U.S. Senate has done its best to avoid a vote on legislation that could shine light into the dark corners of Washington where corruption, waste and outright illegality like to hide. Called the Free Flow of Information Act, the bill would provide a partial shield to reporters who use anonymous sources to uncover matters of public importance.

When official tracks of communication are exhausted, reporters are often reliant on information provided by anonymous sources, usually in exchange for a promise to keep the source’s identity a secret so the government cannot retaliate against them, even if a subpoena is issued. This is not merely a hypothetical situation. In 2005, New York Times reporter James Risen uncovered the government’s warrantless spying program. Now, the government is calling him in front of a federal grand jury to discover the source of its “leaks.” No one would say that this flagrantly illegal program, conducted on American citizens using their taxpayer dollars, is not a matter of public interest. Risen should not face jail time for keeping these whistleblowers incognito and the public informed.

While 32 states provide full shield laws, and 17 more have partial protection, there is no protection at the federal level. There are exceptions in the law, including one for national security that we have little hope this White House won’t abuse, but this law is still an important step in a time when our government is behaving in a frighteningly secretive manner.

It is unfortunate that this bill is viewed through a partisan lens, with Democrats mostly supporting it, and Republicans mostly opposing it. It shouldn’t be. Governments should not be allergic to the truth, however painful that truth may be, and the health of our Republic depends on the information the public receives about its actions. Reluctant Republicans in Congress, we are confident, will feel another way if the other party takes over the White House in November.

Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain all support this legislation. They should encourage their colleagues to do the same, and take a vote on this important bill.