New Press Shield Law Won’t Clarify Blogger’s Rights
For decades, press freedom advocates have pushed for a national law to protect journalists’ rights to withhold confidential sources and data from government authorities. A bill wending its way through Congress, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, has come closer to passage than ever, with the blessing of the Obama administration, according to a postfrom the Reporters’ Committee on Freedom of the Press.
However, if the bill passes, it won’t apply to many of the people who are increasingly responsible for reporting the news. That’s because the bill defines a journalist as a person who gathers and disseminates information as a paid employee of a news organization. That means freelance bloggers and reporters will continue to operate in the legal limbo created by inconsistent state laws and judicial precedents.
For example, in a case reported by Damon Kiesow for Poynter.org, the New Hampshire Supreme court is considering whether a mortgage blogger who published a confidential document containing damaging information about a lender is entitled to the protections accorded journalists under that state’s shield law. The defendant describes himself as an online journalist: someone who, as his attorney put it operates with the intention to “gather, analyze and disseminate.”
That’s the standard advanced by former Society of Professional Journalists president Christine Tatum when I interviewed her in 2006 about the jailing of videoblogger Josh Wolf, who set a record for serving federal time for refusing to surrender outtakes from footage she shot of a 2005 demonstration. Ironically, Tatum and the other experts I interviewed for that story said Wolf’s case was a prime example of the need for a Federal shield law.