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Schaumburg: Federal shield law has legs

One of the tentacles of the Justice Department’s phone spying programs that doesn’t get the headlines is the federal shield law.

Take yourself back to May when it was revealed that the Justice Department infringed upon First Amendment rights of the media by secretly obtaining two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press. It also secretly used a search warrant to obtain some of a Fox News journalist’s emails.

By the end of the day that Attorney General Eric Holder was grilled in a congressional hearing about the unprecedented attacks against journalists, President Barack Obama and his administration was offering a mea culpa by pushing to revive a federal media shield law.

Most states, including Illinois, already have shield laws.

Fast-forward to Thursday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 13-5, to move forward the Free Flow of Information Act – a shield law. It is designed to protect reporters – journalists – from having to reveal their confidential sources.

The committee vote clears the way for a full Senate vote, which Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said would happen as soon as possible. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin is on the Judiciary Committee and supported the bill.

Among the legislation’s highlights:

• The version of the bill that passed Thursday included an amendment that more narrowly defined who is considered a journalist.

• A journalist is defined as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The journalist would have to have been employed for one year within the past 20 years or three months within the past five years.

• Reporters must meet the definition of “journalist” to have the bill’s protections afforded them. Student journalists are included, and a judge has the discretion to classify an individual as a journalist.

• Information is considered privileged if it is disseminated by a newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, news agency, news website, mobile application, news program or news magazine in print or electronic format, or a motion picture.

• Posts on Twitter, blogs or other social media sites from nonjournalists are not protected.

• Reporters and news media organizations are protected from being required to reveal the identities of confidential sources, but it does not grant an absolute privilege to journalists.

• Before the government can ask a news organization to divulge sources, it first must go to a judge, who would supervise subpoenas/court orders for information.

It would appear the push for a federal shield law is gaining more momentum than it’s ever had.

That’s a good thing. Freedoms erode when the government crosses the line and starts spying on media charged with holding the government accountable and keeping it on its toes.

If the government is spying or can demand disclosure of sources, then sources dry up for fear of retribution. When sources run dry, wrongdoing and abuse in government go unexposed.

Our country is much better off when people feel protected to reach out and provide information about government abuse. Disclosing such information is important to our democracy.

A shield law isn’t about journalists or how the government defines who is a journalist. It’s about you, me, our children and our freedom.

• Jason Schaumburg is editor of the Northwest Herald. He’s a mean Scrabble player but might have met his match. Reach him at 815-459-4122 or via email at jschaumburg@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Schaumy.

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