The Senate Judiciary Committee, on a 13-5 vote, approved the federal Free Flow of Information Act and sent it to the Senate floor. The measure has long been sought by journalism organizations and First Amendment advocates to protect reporters from having to choose between breaking a promise to a source and going to jail.Why would this seemingly-positive development be cause for concern? Well, because:
Under the committee's compromise, those covered would include someone who has had an employment relationship with a journalism organization for one year within the past 20 years, or three months within the past five years. Also covered are people with "a substantial track record of freelancing" in the past five years and student journalists.
Significantly, the measure also includes a provision covering those who a federal judge decides "should be able to avail him or herself of the protections of the privilege, consistent with the interests of justice and the protection of lawful and legitimate newsgathering activities."In other words, this bill, if passed, would grant a new power to the federal courts -- the power to determine who is and who isn't "press." And since the press is protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, this bill effectively give the federal government the power to decide who qualifies for a constitutionally protected civil right.
MF applauds attempts to provide greater protection for journalists, especially under an administration that has been as hard as any on whistleblowers, but granting this type of power to the federal government is not the way to go about it.
The freedom of speech and of the press exists because, without it, the people have no way of bringing to light violations of any of the subsequent protections under the Bill of Rights. In essence, this makes this civil right the most important, for violations of the other civil rights cannot be addressed if the public is ignorant of them.
It should come as no surprise that organizations like the Newspaper Association of America support the bill, since it's members are included under the bill's journalist requirements (and not potential grassroots competitors). But members of the news reporting community should be in the unique position to be aware of what such a deal with the devil might lead to.
Once the government has the power, they are all but guaranteed to use it.
All it would take is some "crisis," some distraction, which are seemingly plentiful in the post-9/11 world, for "revisions" to be made to the requirements for one to be considered a journalist. If this bill passes, what's to stop the implementation of a journalist licensing regimen?
The fault of letting the powerful decide who is allowed to observe them exercising power is self-evident, but one need only look to numerous examples throughout history to see such an idea's folly. Time and again, when a dictatorship takes power, the first major action is to silence the critics.
When you silence the press, you silence the people. And that's what's going on here, despite how nobly the bill is being presented.