The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Free Flow of Information Act (FFIA) in September and the full Senate may vote on the bill, which is in essence a shield law for journalists, this month. Such a law has been needed for years -- and FFIA has been stalled for seven years -- but a case can be made that it is needed now more than ever.
FFIA would prohibit federal agencies and prosecutors from threatening reporters with jail time if they refuse to disclose sources, and provides avenues to address government subpoenas. The Justice Department, pursuing a leak about a failed al-Qaida plot, subpoenaed 20 Associated Press phone lines without notice, denying AP a chance to pursue judicial review of the subpoena. A military court forced CNN and CBS to hand over footage of interviews with a Navy midshipman who was the victim of an alleged sexual assault. The first of these subpoenas, and arguably the second, would be illegal under FFIA. The exposure of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying has drawn attention to the need for these
The Senate committee struggled in search of a definition of "journalist" in this age of media bloggers, some, but not all of whom, merit that description. The bill protects all traditional news organizations, while giving judges the right to protect others engaging in "lawful and legitimate news-gathering activities." It is a loose definition, but elected officials, courts and journalists are all adjusting to a news industry in flux because of rapid advances in online communications.
It is significant in this partisan age that the bill passed by a 15-3 vote in the Senate committee. This is a recognition by Democrats and Republicans that Americans are left in the dark if the press is prevented by government from doing its job, which often involves exposing government malfeasance or revealing secrets government should not be keeping from voters. We urge Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey to not only support the bill but lobby for its passage in Congress so it can get to the president’s desk this spring.