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February 1, 2023

All journalists must be protected

New York Times reporter Judith Miller has spent two weeks in jail – and counting – for refusing to identify a source for a story she didn’t even write.

Rhode Island reporter Jim Taricani was sentenced to six months of home confinement in December for refusing to divulge who provided him with an FBI surveillance tape of a city official taking a bribe.

Prosecutors demanded that five Bay Area newspaper reporters reveal confidential sources for stories about the baseball steroids scandal.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer is holding two important stories because it doesn’t want to risk having to reveal confidential sources.

These are just a few recent, real-life examples of why we need a national shield law for journalists.

Although journalists have gone to jail to protect sources for years, the controversy surrounding the leak of a CIA agent’s name has catapulted the issue to the national spotlight.

Currently, 31 states have shield laws in place, including California, and court rulings in 18 other states provide some protection to journalists.

Details vary from state to state, but most specify that journalists’ confidential material is protected unless the person seeking the information proves a critical need for it, and that it must be found to be extremely relevant and cannot be obtained in any other way, according to the First Amendment Center.

These protections do not apply at the federal level, however, and difficulties arise when story sources or reporters cross state lines.

Journalists and supporters of a free press are not asking for unprecedented privileges. Information obtained by doctors, lawyers and members of the clergy, for example, as well as information shared between spouses, is protected in some circumstances.

The threat of jail and expensive and protracted court battles has a chilling effect on the news media.

Every day, Americans count on a vigorous press to tell us important stories. Sometimes those stories threaten those in power, expose wrongdoing or embarrass people.

But as Dodd has said, “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.”

Important stories will go untold without confidential sources, and it’s important that the balance of power not be tipped any more toward those who already hold so much.

Several shield-law bills are in the works in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Write your federal representatives and urge them to support a federal shield law for journalists. A free press is a critical check on the enormous power of government.

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