We need a federal shield law now!

May 17, 2013 01:30

By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director

The news this week that the Obama administration is pushing Congress to revive efforts to enact a federal shield law strikes virtually none of us as a magnanimous gesture.  Rather, it’s a not-veiled-at-all response to the Justice Department’s dramatic overreach in obtaining confidential phone records involving AP reporters and their sources; damage control at 1600 Pennsylvania, no doubt.

While RTDNA, as did scores of other journalism groups, decried the DOJ’s action, if it ultimately leads to the enactment of a federal shield law for reporters, then some good will have come of it.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is a leading proponent of such a law and is expected again to be the point man in any effort to revive the legislation, which failed during the President’s first year in office.  “Right now, there are no guidelines and we feel there should be guidelines,” Schumer was quoted in the Wall Street Journal.  “It shouldn’t be any time a government official wants information from the press they can just get it.”

The DOJ appears to have violated several key tenants of its own subpoena guidelines in the AP case, although the Deputy Attorney General overseeing the case disagrees with that contention.

Forty of the 50 states have codified shield laws and several more have de-facto shield protection as a result of court decisions.   However, none of those have any effect whatsoever on federal actions, such as the AP records seizure.  That’s why we need a federal shield statute.

Much remains unclear at this point.  The effectiveness of shield protection, of course, depends on how the law is written and how easily the government could override any of its protections citing, for example, national security concerns.   Attorney General Eric Holder told a Congressional panel the records seizure was necessary as the Justice Department investigated one of the “top two or three serious leaks that I’ve ever seen.  It put the American people at risk.”  The probe centered around who may have leaked information to AP reporters about a failed al-Qaida bomb plot last year.

While RTDNA believes a federal shield law should provide the most stringent protections possible for journalists, we also believe that any such law—even one that may have some flaws—is long overdue.

If a shield law emerges from the embers of this tragic AP incident, then, at least, some good will have come from a very unfortunate situation.

Check out more links to media reports and opinions about the DOJ's actions.