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Tuned In: A Pressing Act

A bill championed by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden that would establish federal protections for the newsgathering rights of journalists received new energy recently when the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) submitted a letter to the U.S. Senate urging it to pass the PRESS Act (short for the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act). The letter was endorsed by 53 national news organizations.

The PRESS Act would prohibit the federal government from compelling journalists through the use of subpoenas, search warrants, or other compulsory actions, to disclose information, identify confidential sources, or provide newsgathering records except in very limited circumstances, such as to prevent terrorism or imminent violence.

The PRESS Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in January under suspension of its rules, a procedure generally reserved for noncontroversial, bipartisan legislation, but has been tied up in the Senate Judiciary Committee ever since.

The PRESS Act is what's referred to as a shield law, a law designed to protect a journalist's privilege under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Currently, there is no federal shield law, but 40 states have enacted laws with varying degrees of protections for journalists. Both Oregon and California have shield laws in place that are considered to be strong, and California voters passed a proposition in 1980 that elevated these protections to its state constitution.

There are many benefits to enacting the PRESS Act at the federal level. It would establish a stronger and more durable standard for the U.S. Department of Justice, which currently treats journalists according to internal policy, which can change at any time. Under the PRESS Act, the federal government would be expressly prohibited from surveilling journalists by gathering their phone, messaging, or email records and it couldn’t force a journalist to disclose their sources. This protection would also extend to telecommunications companies which may store a journalist’s work product. Also, acknowledging the changing trends in journalism, the act defines “covered journalist” broadly to apply to any person who regularly publishes news or information in the public interest.

While a federal shield law would not supersede state laws, protection on the federal level would send a clear message about the importance of preserving every journalist’s independence, help minimize frivolous lawsuits which news organizations need to defend, and strengthen the relationships between journalists and their sources.

In an age when our political parties disagree about most everything, there seems to be general agreement on the value of the PRESS Act. The House bill was sponsored by Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.) and co-sponsored by a group of 18 other members, nine Republicans and nine Democrats. When it was considered in the House, no Republicans or Democrats objected to the act. The Senate version of the bill is co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Other prominent Republicans like Mike Pence, Bob Goodlatte, and Jim Jordan have supported shield legislation in the past.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” It’s time to strengthen the essential role the press plays as a watchdog of our democracy and protect the journalists who work on our behalf to provide the information we need as citizens of a free society.

Paul Westhelle oversees management of JPR's service to the community.  He came to JPR in 1990 as Associate Director of Broadcasting for Marketing and Development after holding jobs in non-profit management and fundraising for a national health agency. He's a graduate of San Jose State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.