Freedom Of the Press: For "Real Journalists" Only?


In the face of increased leaks of government information and a series of scandals concerning the relationship between news media and the federal government, Congress is attempting to devise a “shield law” that would protect journalists from undue abuse, by giving them the right to refuse to reveal their sources or other confidential information in court.  The problem Congress is having is no one can decide what constitutes a “journalist.”  According to a statement by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), she is concerned that the law “would provide special privilege to those who are not reporters at all." To prevent this sort of abuse, she is suggesting an amendment that would ensure the bill only applies to “real journalists,” that is to say, salaried individuals at established media outlets. Independent journalists or volunteers, such as those who write for PolicyMic, would not be covered.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who initially proposed the media shield bill, was against the proposed amendment, saying, "The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that." But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill."

However, both senators are missing the real problem with the bill: the idea that the government needs to pass a law to protect the rights of journalists. Such a law is already in place, and has been for a very long time. It reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The relevant part of the First Amendment in this case is, “Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech or the press.” Were Senator Feinstein’s amendment to be passed, it would relegate independent or volunteer reporters to an almost second-class position, where they are not protected under the law the same way that “real” journalists are.

This idea of classifying news sources and giving some special privileges has additional disturbing implications, namely the idea that the government has de facto control over what can be published. After all, what can be given can be taken away. If the federal government declares that the rights to report a story without fear of unfair treatment in court is something that it dispenses, then it can also declare that certain news sources don’t have that right. This goes against the intent of the First Amendment, and for that matter the entire Bill of Rights. The rights protected by the first 10 amendments are not something that the government can give you. They are yours already, and the government cannot take them away. If this media shield law becomes a reality, it effectively says that the right to publish what one wishes belongs not to the individual, but to the federal government, to be given and taken away as it sees fit.