Shield laws are crucial to a healthy, functioning press. These statutes protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources in court or to Congress except under a very limited set of circumstances.
Every state save Wyoming has some sort of protection for journalists, with the understanding that a government that can threaten sources of information with punishment is a government seeking to evade accountability and to neuter the First Amendment.
Yet there is no national shield law.
Congress has attempted to pass such a statute on numerous occasions without success. Last month, the effort again hit a wall. The Protect Reporters From Exploitative State Spying act passed the House in September without controversy on a voice vote and appeared poised to sail through the Senate in December. But Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, intervened. He raised national security objections — citing the Pentagon Papers case as an example — and complained that the proposal provided special protections to journalists not afforded to all citizens.
But that’s false.
The bipartisan measure shields anybody who “regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, investigates or publishes news or information that concerns local, national or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.” As Scott Shackleford of Reason points out, “It does not require a person to be employed by a media outlet as a reporter to claim its protections.”
As for the Pentagon Papers — a classified government report detailing the nation’s involvement in Vietnam that was leaked to The New York Times in 1971 — what is Sen. Cotton’s point? The publication of the papers didn’t risk national security, as government officials claimed. Instead, it provided details to the American public about the actions of those in positions of trust. This promoted accountability and transparency.
Sen. Cotton’s outlook treats “American citizens as though their need for information is subservient to whatever the federal government and military desire,” Mr. Shackleford writes, adding, “Who are the actual beneficiaries when press shield laws stop the government from forcing journalists into revealing their sources?”
In the vast majority of instances, it’s not the American citizen.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat representing Oregon and one of the bill’s sponsors, has vowed to bring the legislation up again this year. Good. The bill has widespread, bipartisan support and presents Congress with the opportunity to actually do something in the public interest. It’s passage is long overdue.