Schaumburg: Freedoms erode when rights are violated

What’s the best thing to do when your Justice Department infringes on First Amendment rights of the media?

Float – again – the idea of passing a federal media shield law.

It’s been quite the week for government and the Fourth Estate.

On Monday, it was revealed that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder was rightfully grilled in a Congressional Hearing about the unprecedented attack against journalists.

By the end of the day Wednesday, President Barack Obama and his administration were pushing to revive the media shield law as if to say, “We’re sorry.”

Holder’s Justice Department seized the records for more than 20 separate phone lines assigned to the AP and its reporters. It did so while investigating a leak of information provided to AP for a story that reported details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bombing plot around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.

This clear overstep of the Justice Department should disturb every American, not only journalists. The department ignored established guidelines to try and obtain this information and secretly spied on Americans, who happen to be journalists.

That’s bad for you. That’s bad for me. That’s bad for your neighbor. That’s bad for your children.

Because when the government crosses the line and starts spying on media charged with holding the government accountable and keeping it on its toes, freedoms start to erode.

There are numerous examples of wrong-doing and abuse that have been exposed by journalists with the help of sources who were comfortable enough to know that they would never be revealed and decided that the information they had needed to be disclosed for the public good.

These sources will dry up if the government is secretly watching. If these sources stay quiet, it opens up the possibility for the government to do more public business behind closed doors without fear of being exposed.

And we’ve been down the media-shield-law road before. Such a law would, in theory, protect journalists from being compelled to reveal sources as part of an investigation.

Obama tried to pass a shield law in his first year as president. It’s hard to say whether such a law would be effective without seeing how it is written. The White House appears to be using Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., as its conduit to reviving the shield law.

“Right now, there are no guidelines, and we feel that there should be guidelines,” Schumer is quoted as saying in a Wall Street Journal story. “It shouldn’t be any time a government official wants information from the press that they can just get it.”

Correct. But that’s what happened. And I fear for our country if it is allowed to continue to happen.

• Jason Schaumburg is editor of the Northwest Herald. He’s certain the Blackhawks made the right decision last season by not firing Joel Quenneville. Reach him at 815-459-4122 or via email at Follow him on Twitter at @Schaumy.

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