Legal News - Newspapers press Senate to pass media shield bill

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 Newspapers in Tennessee, California, Georgia, and Ohio and several other states carried editorials Monday in support of US Senate passage of a proposed federal reporter shield law, of the law, citing the occasional necessity of source anonymity. The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 would allow reporters to refuse to reveal their sources during testimony given in federal cases, except when the information is needed to prevent a terrorist act, to protect national security, as eyewitness testimony to a crime, or to prevent other serious crimes. The US House of Representatives passed a similar bill  in October 2007. The Senate is scheduled to vote on its version before it recesses for the summer, but could vote on the bill as early as this week.

Clint Brewer, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and executive editor of the Nashville City Paper, wrote:

The use of anonymous sources is a very necessary part of the reporting process, and the practice has been the only way some of the biggest stories about government corruption, neglect and corporate abuse have come to light at the hands of the American press. From Watergate to Enron to Walter Reed, story after story shining a light on the ills and wrongs committed in the names of the American people would never have been published without journalists being able to protect anonymous sources.

Now, the government in the form of overreaching federal judges and prosecutors is trying to come through reporters to discover leaks of information about the workings of our government — much of it information every citizen has the right to know. The result is that our country, which should be a beacon for human rights and democracy worldwide, is instead jailing and fining journalists for doing their job, for informing the public about the business of their government.

The bill is also supported by media companies and organizations and more than 40 attorneys general, but the Bush administration has threatened to veto the federal shield law, saying it would threaten national security and that its definition of a journalist is too broad.

In recent years, the media and the courts have been exploring the extent of reporters' rights to protect their sources. Former USA Today reporter Toni Locy has appealed a contempt of court ruling for refusing to disclose government sources who provided information about former US Army germ-warfare researcher Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, initially identified as a "person of interest" in the 2001 anthrax attacks  investigations. In March, US District Judge Reggie Walton found Locy in contempt of court for not disclosing her sources and ordered her to pay a fine of $500 a day, increasing to $1,000 a day after one week and then up to $5,000 a day after two weeks, the costs of which could not be covered by her former employer. Locy obtained an emergency stay of that order from the Court of Appeals and oral arguments on the merits of the sanctions were heard in May. The appeals court has yet to make a formal ruling on the status of the contempt case in light of Hatfill's June settlement of his case.

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