Amy Gahran of the Poynter Institute writes that a proposed federal shield law would actually be a step backwards. Under the original version, the bill would protect “a person engaged in journalism” from having to reveal his or her anonymous sources, a definition seemingly elastic enough to cover bloggers.
The new version, by contrast, covers “A person who, for financial gain or livelihood [Gahran’s emphasis], is engaged in journalism,” which would largely restrict the shield law’s protections to professional journalists. Gahran writes:
Journalism is a practice, not a priesthood. At its core it’s about committing acts of journalism, not about getting a degree, being employed, or even getting paid. I think a federal shield law with such exclusive language would only serve to diminish the practice and independence of journalism, especially among people who are sticking their necks out entirely on their own to do it.
She adds that she hopes President Bush vetoes it. (Don’t worry; he will.)
As we’ve seen in recent years, journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources if they’re call into court to testify. Judith Miller‘s case is the best-known, but there are many others as well.
Forty-nine states either have shield laws or state-court opinions that essentially require judges to consider all other options before forcing journalists to testify. But there is no such protection at the federal level, which is why Congress is now considering such legislation.
The trouble is, as Gahran notes, the First Amendment recognizes no special privileges for journalists as a class. Nor should it. The First Amendment is for all of us. By passing a shield law that protects journalism as an activity, Congress would be honoring the spirit of the First Amendment. The change Gahran rightly worries about would only protect members of the “priesthood.”
It would be interesting to learn why the language was changed, and who was behind it.
NPR’s “On the Media” has a good summation of the shield-law debate.