The Fight for a Federal Shield Law is Far From Over

Cracking Down on Information

In President Obama’s America – and most certainly in the future under president-elect Donald Trump – journalism is in more danger than ever. Whistleblowers – government insiders that relay highly sensitive information to journalists for publishing – are currently the main target; under Obama, eight whistleblowers have been prosecuted for espionage. That’s more than double the amount of all whistleblowers tried under every past administration combined.

The error here is that providing classified information to a trusted newspaper is not condemned under the 1917 Espionage Act, which stipulates that the crime involves the selling of government information to a foreign entity with the intent of harming the United States in some way (gross oversimplification, but you get the gist).

Despite this, individuals like Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking information about abuse by officers at Guantanamo Bay to Wikileaks.

The crackdown has scared many into silence. Whistleblowers are increasingly reluctant to provide news, and the free flow of information is being dangerously suppressed by the current administration.

Shield Laws, State and Federal

In many states, journalists are protected from being forced to disclose the identities of anonymous sources through shield law statutes and reporter’s privileges. In fact, 32 states and the District of Columbia currently have statutes in place that provide these protections.

However, no such law exists at the federal level. The most recent case the Supreme Court can draw on for legal precedent is 1972’s Branzburg v. Hayes, in which the judges ultimately ruled that Branzburg, a journalist producing a story on marijuana production and usage, was required to testify and reveal the identity of his sources.

A federal shield law has been suggested and has even gone up for vote in Congress, but has failed in each proceeding.

Many criticize the proposals for being too flexible in the definition of what constitutes “true journalism,” fearing that unpaid bloggers and freelance journalists not under the umbrella of legitimate news organizations will be offered unanimous protections. Ultimately, the fear is that identities of whistleblowers can be kept anonymous in federal proceedings, which, in this scary time of NSA surveillance and Homeland Security run amok, apparently poses a significant threat to the well-being of our nation.

Whistleblowers are incredibly important for any hopes for a free flow of news. By strangling important avenues of information, the government effectively silences the press and is able to cover its tracks on a plethora of misdeeds and corruption. This cannot be allowed to happen; the government does not have the right to decide who is a journalist or whose work is inherently legitimate. News is news, and the courts should be forced to treat it as such.


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