The Obama administration’s invasive search of Associated Press reporters’ phone records offers another sharp reminder of why the nation needs a federal shield law to protect journalists’ confidential sources: Government can’t be trusted to always tell the truth or to always do what’s right. Government officials often will have interests and agendas they want to protect from public view.
That’s one reason the Founding Fathers created three branches of government to balance those interests and why they put press and speech protection in the First Amendment. They knew the people needed the ability to create watchdogs of government.
But as the Justice Department’s search of AP reporters’ phone records in a national security investigation shows, more protection is needed. The search was so broad that it swept up information unrelated to the original case and justifiably outraged news organizations and public watchdog groups everywhere.
The public should be just as outraged. This search came to light, but are there other searches that have not? If government is allowed to do this without any kind of check or accountability, the public’s ability to monitor what its government is doing could be severely hampered.
But there is a bright side: The scandal may finally yield a federal shield law. In the wake of the revelation of the Justice Department’s intrusive probe, the White House is now showing some shame and supporting bipartisan legislation — the Free Flow of Information Act — in both houses of Congress that would give reporters greater protections in keeping their communications and sources confidential. And that means greater public access to a free flow of information unfettered by government control.
Because some of the details of the AP case aren’t known, it isn’t entirely clear that this legislation would have entirely prevented the AP scandal. But at the very least, a shield law would have required the Justice Department to seek approval from a federal judge, who could have ensured that a broadly worded subpoena wouldn’t be used to conduct a fishing expedition.
“The events that have come to light this week demonstrate that clear, uniform standards — administered by an impartial judge — are needed for the compelled disclosure of confidential source information so that overly broad requests do not chill the flow of information to the public on important government issues,” the Newspaper Association of America said in a statement.
If whistleblowers and other potential sources fear that their identities will become known, they may be far less likely to come forward. That means government’s ability to control information becomes more secure, and it can shape agendas and stories the way officials want them shaped.
That’s incompatible with a free society.
The legislation does not give news organizations a free pass. The legislation establishes reasonable and balanced ground rules for when a journalist can be compelled to testify about confidential sources, including information needed to prevent an act of terrorism or other harm to national security.
This month, even as he was being grilled by members of Congress over the AP search, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said he and the White House supported enactment of a federal shield law.
With White House backing and bipartisan congressional support maybe this can finally get done. For the sake of the public, it needs to get done.
-Milwaukee Journal Sentinel