Free Flow: Slow Go

Oct 2, 2009  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

For proponents of efforts to pass a federal shield law, it’s been a few months of one step forward, two steps back.

“Just when you think you’re making some headway, something comes up that you weren’t expecting,” said Kevin Z. Smith, an assistant professor of journalism at Fairmont State University, in Fairmont, W.Va., and the new president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Those who are in favor of the Free Flow of Information Act, which would protect journalists and sources from government prying, were encouraged when the bill passed in the House by voice vote in March.

But the Senate has proven to be a holdup. For two consecutive Thursdays in late September, the Judiciary Committee was unable to end debate and vote the bill out of committee. Despite distraction from the push to pass health care reform, as of Sept. 25, Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was still insisting that the shield bill would get through, even if it takes some time.

The bill, which is supported by about 70 journalism organizations including the Society of Environmental Journalists, endured a couple of major changes in amendments approved by the committee. Most notably, bloggers were excluded from the bill’s protection, a disappointment to those hoping for a broad umbrella.

Smith said supporters’ current task is to convince Justice Department staffers that their worries that the bill will hurt national security “are not a concern. They are addressed in this bill.”

Joe Davis, who writes the Society of Environmental Journalists’ First Amendment WatchDog TipSheet, said the Obama administration “has been supportive of a shield law. I think the issue is what kind of shield law.”

He added, “I only hope the Democrats do what they said they would do during their various campaigns, and that was support reporters’ privilege. I think there’s some hope for that.”

Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU-TV in Columbia, Mo., and the chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (soon to be the Radio Television Digital News Association) agreed. “I am more hopeful now than I have been in a long time,” he said.

He recalled an RTNDA board meeting with former President George W. Bush in the summer of 2006 where the issue was raised and the president “shut it down right away.”

Now, he said, there is “some hope that with the change in administration the White House is going to be a bit more open. We’re still holding out hope on this.”

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