THE unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers by the Obama administration’s Department of Justice has been a reminder that government secrets are often diamonds: hard to unearth, but transfixing once revealed.
The prosecutorial zeal — eight leakers prosecuted by Obama, compared to three under all his predecessors — demands a resetting of balance between government’s interest in keeping secrets and journalists’ ability to unearth them.
A reporter shield law is the logical response. A good law builds a legal wall around journalists’ notebooks, communications and source material, breachable only under extraordinary circumstances.
On Sept. 12, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, by a vote of 13-5, passed The Free Flow of Information Act, S. 987, on to the full Senate.
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For the first time, the bill would create a statutory privilege protecting journalists against being compelled to identify confidential sources, similar to the protection the Washington Legislature passed in 2007.
The law doesn’t offer an impenetrable invisibility cloak to journalists’ sources, or a license to break the law. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, described the law as a shield of “Kevlar, not Kryptonite.”
But it would set an extremely high legal bar for prosecutors to hurdle before seeking reporters’ sources and materials. It also puts into law the Department of Justice’s new advisory guidelines, issued last summer in response to outcry over warrantless seizure of Associated Press phone records.
Debate continues about the measure’s definition of a journalist. It clearly applies to journalists at traditional news organizations but some bloggers fret it excludes them. The Online News Association, representing digital journalists, supports it.
President Obama supports a reporter shield law, even as his Department of Justice pursues journalists’ sources.
Obama knows that zeal will chill leakers, including righteous whistle-blowers of government malfeasance. A reporter shield law resets the balance and the public’s right to know.