Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Protecting your right to know

 

OUR OPINION: Need for a federal shield law for reporters more compelling than ever

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

A misguided ruling by a federal appeals court on press freedom last week underscores the need for a federal shield law that protects the news media’s right to report on wrongdoing in the government and mischief by public officials.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., declared in a 2-1 ruling that New York Times reporter James Risen must testify in the trial of a CIA operative charged with leaking classified information to him. The decision undermines the First Amendment privilege and gives the government unchecked power to intimidate Mr. Risen and other reporters who refuse to reveal their sources.

As Judge Roger Gregory noted in his dissent, the majority’s ruling “severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”

It would compel reporters to reveal confidential sources in a criminal trial, effectively discouraging whistleblowers in the government from coming forth. Fearing government retaliation, news organizations would be obliged to think twice before going public with information based on leaks by employees on the public payroll.

The government would no doubt prefer a lapdog to a watchdog, but the public would be the big loser. Hard-hitting journalism that uncovers wrongdoing in government provides information on some of the most important issues in the realm of public affairs, promotes transparency, and keeps public officials on their toes.

The court’s ruling should give Congress new impetus to enact a federal shield law, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider on Thursday. It is the best way to protect the public’s right to know without damaging national security.

The proposed law protects journalists who are doing their job against being compelled to reveal their sources, but also requires courts to apply a balancing test to safeguard the public. Exceptions would include instances when the government seeks information that could be used to prevent terrorism attacks and when information sought from reporters can help prevent harm to others.

The bill would transform into law a set of guidelines issued by the Obama administration in response to the public backlash over disclosures that it had seized phone records and emails from reporters without notifying the news media beforehand.

The administration rules issued after the embarrassing disclosures of its overreach aren’t enough. A law will guard against the possibility that a future president or attorney general — or the present ones — would try to get rid of the current guidelines at a later time.

One provision would not allow the Justice Department to delay notifying a reporter or news agency when their records are being sought for more than 90 days.

Another would broaden the guideline ban against seizing records, which currently is limited to cell phone companies and email providers, to include other documentation like business and credit card company records.

The law would also ban the use of search warrants to go after a reporter’s records unless the reporter was under investigation for activity that did not involve gathering the news.

Congress has tried and failed several times to approve a federal shield law. This time it must not fail. The Risen ruling and the administration’s overzealous efforts to seize reporters’ records should be enough to persuade legislators that the need to enact such a law is more compelling than ever.

Read more Editorials stories from the Miami Herald

  • Worth a thousand words

    The Miami Herald Editorial Board shares the viewpoints of cartoonists from across the country in this Saturday feature called “Worth a Thousand Words.”

  •  
Florida Governor Rick Scott

    Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

    Assault on open government

    OUR OPINION: Gov. Scott ignores right of public access

  •  
Daniella Levine Cava celebrates her election victory on Tuesday night.

    Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

    Now comes the hard part

    OUR OPINION: Results of closely watched races bring promise, and possible problems

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category