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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Federal shield law is not about individual journalists

UPDATES: There's this from Jill and the some dissent here.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. — The First Amendment, ratified Dec. 15, 1791

Congress shall make no law…and yet legions of journalists and their employers are lining up to support approval of a Federal Shield Law. The First Amendment applies to everyone and does not single out members of the press. The moment we start to define who is and who is not a journalist is the moment we’ve begun to erode the First Amendment.

I’ve thought long and hard about this issue because the organization to which I belong and for which I work is one of the vocal proponents of such a law. I’ve heard the excuse that if we (meaning journalists) don’t set the definition, the government will do it for us. I don’t buy that argument. I believe it’s a bad time now and journalism is hard, but isn’t it supposed to hard? Are we supposed to be able to conduct investigations easily? I don’t think so. We work for the nuggets we get and police and prosecutors do the same.

The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee will not protect the people in whose name we champion its cause. Judith Miller’s stories involved national security and that’s one reason the government can use to compel testimony. An Administration, particularly this Administration, can shout “National Security” at the top of their lungs only to later learn through the courts that their claim was invalid. "Right now that (national security) exception is so big you could drive a truck through it," said Debbie Berman, of the Chicago law firm of Jenner and Block. No matter, the damage to reporting is already done.

Josh Wolf is an independent journalist and blogger and vocal anarchist out in San Francisco. The U.S. District Court has already ruled that he doesn’t fit the definition of journalist under a shield law even though the reason he will likely head back to jail is because he shot video footage of a protest run amok and sold that footage to a local TV station (hence he was acting as a journalist).

Vanessa Leggett spent half a year in jail in 2003 because she would not turn over notes to a grand jury about a murder she was researching for a book project. At the time every major news organization came to her defense. But she would not be covered under the federal shield law because she was not a published journalist.

Journalism is changing and evolving rapidly and any attempts to define who is and who is not a journalist could prove more damaging and limiting than we can foresee right now. Leaving that definition up to court interpretation is a slippery slope toward licensing of journalists.

It was once infamously observed on the front page of the PD that you don’t need any special skills to blog. Guess what? You don’t need any special skills to be a journalist either. It helps to be curious and resourceful, to be able to connect thoughts and write coherently. But those are skills you’re either born with or you can nurture through doing. We don’t need to master canons of law or be able to perform surgery on two hours of sleep in order to get an alphabet soup of initials after our byline.

So why are we so ready to accept the legislation of one aspect of our jobs?

Journalism feels threatened today by changing conditions, be that at the hands of citizen journalists or the justice department subpoenas. Legislating our job is never going to improve those conditions.

This proposed federal shield law is more about protecting traditional journalism organizations and institutions than it is about protecting individual journalists. And that is the biggest travesty of all. It’s about big business protecting its toosh, not about any reporter facing jail time.

Continued support of this bill is perpetuating the illusion that we have some special privilege that the rest of America does not. That’s not what is written into the First Amendment.

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