The American democracy is built on a concept of checks and balances between the arms of government. The American people now need the U.S. Senate to provide a very appropriate check on the judicial and executive branches of the federal government to preserve a free press in this country.
The Free Flow of Information Act, S. 2035, is scheduled for a vote in the Senate before its members go home for the campaign season. The vote may happen as early as this week.
Senators hold in their collective hands a crucial decision about just how vast we as a country will allow our government’s powers to grow. With this vote, Senators have the ability to check the scope of government’s growing reach into American life as well as to make a real policy statement about the importance of civil liberties in modern day America.
The Free Flow of Information Act, or Shield bill as it is known, protects the relationship between journalists and their sources by protecting journalists from judges and prosecutors that would force them to give up the identity of anonymous sources.
The use of anonymous sources is a very necessary part of the reporting process, and the practice has been the only way some of the biggest stories about government corruption, neglect and corporate abuse have come to light at the hands of the American press. From Watergate to Enron to Walter Reed, story after story shining a light on the ills and wrongs committed in the names of the American people would never have been published without journalists being able to protect anonymous sources.
Now, the government in the form of overreaching federal judges and prosecutors is trying to come through reporters to discover leaks of information about the workings of our government — much of it information every citizen has the right to know. The result is that our country, which should be a beacon for human rights and democracy worldwide, is instead jailing and fining journalists for doing their job, for informing the public about the business of their government.
Furthermore, if the feelings of the U.S. House of Representatives are any indication, the American people support this limiting of government’s powers coast to coast. Last October, the House passed its version of the shield bill, H.R. 2102, by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin of 398 to 21. The Shield bill is a concept that appeals to the logic of leaders in both parties.
In addition, both party’s presidential nominees, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, have publicly stated they support the Shield bill. Even in a hotly contested election, the standard bearers of both parties agree this legislation is the best thing for America.
At the state level, there is also nearly universal support for reporters’ shield. State attorneys general from 42 states through the National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to Senators prior to the July 4 holiday reiterating their support of the bill and encouraging Senate leadership to bring it to the floor for a vote. Some 49 states already have their own version of a Shield law, either through codified law or judicial precedent.
National security concerns have also been thoroughly addressed by the sponsors of the bill. The bill is not a free pass for the media, as the law would ensure reasonable ground rules in matters of national security and criminal acts when reporters can be compelled in court to reveal their confidential sources.
This legislation is necessary for the future health of the American democracy. The citizenry’s right to monitor government and report on its actions is a cornerstone of this country’s form of government. Passing this law is also a major step to keeping the size and scope of government’s powers firmly in check. Our elected officials in the U.S. Senate need to provide that balance by voting in favor of the Shield bill.
Brewer, The City Paper’s executive editor, is the national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, the largest broad based association of media professionals in the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org