In our opinion: Pass a federal shield law

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 24 2009 12:25 a.m. MST

New York Times reporter Judith Miller, left, testifies at a Senate judiciary hearing in 2005 about media shield legislation.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

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Congress needs to pass a federal shield law to protect reporters from being prosecuted for gathering the news. That has become especially evident now, thanks to the work of a BYU professor and former Deseret News reporter.

Professor RonNell Andersen Jones has compiled evidence, through surveys of hundreds of news organizations, showing how the number of federal subpoenas against reporters has grown in recent years. In 2006 alone, she discovered, 34 federal subpoenas were issued in an attempt to get reporters to reveal the names of anonymous sources who had provided important information. That is significant, considering the Department of Justice had maintained that only 19 such subpoenas had been issued in all the years since 1992.

Clearly, that was a number the department pulled out of thin air, just as subpoenas against reporters are often little more than desperate attempts by prosecutors who could get the information they seek elsewhere.

When state, local and federal cases are combined, Jones found nearly 8,000 subpoenas to reporters in 2006. As she said, that does not qualify the practice as a rarity. Most states, however, have some form of a shield law in place. Utah has a judicial rule that requires judges to weigh the need to compel a reporter to testify against society's need for a free and independent media and to also determine whether the information is vital, relevant and cannot be obtained any other way.

But there are no such rules in the federal system.

A reporter shield did pass the House in 2007, but it did not get any further. Now, a version has been introduced once again. Given that both President Barack Obama and his opponent in the election, Arizona Sen. John McCain, support it, the bill ought to pass quickly.

A shield would allow people with knowledge of corruption to report that information without recriminations. Often, sources will refuse to divulge important information without a promise of secrecy. These sources frequently feel that all other official avenues for reporting abuses are, for whatever reasons, closed to them.

And for all those bloggers with disdain for the "mainstream media," a shield would protect them as well should they ever do any serious reporting that requires them to guarantee anonymity to an important source of information.

A republic functions best when media of all types are allowed to gather information freely and without intimidation and when the abused feel free to tell the truth without fear of recriminations.

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