A shield for the future of the media, republic

When I welcomed the 500 or so people gathered Wednesday for the Review-Journal's 31st annual high school journalism awards ceremony, I encouraged -- as any editor would -- the award recipients to consider pursuing journalism as a career. After all, we could use a few bright, young scribblers, copy editors, photogs and artists a few years hence.

But honestly realizing most will wander off into other important and, perhaps, equally noble occupations, I also encouraged all of them to become lifelong consumers of news and information, because they will be the government in the future. They can't very well make important decisions about voting and public policy without keeping themselves well-read and up to date on the issues.

I reminded them that the press is the only business singled out by the Constitution to be given special freedom from government interference.

"Governments are instituted among men," as the Declaration of Independence states, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ..."

But the governed can't provide meaningful consent if they are not kept abreast of what the governing are up to. How are they spending our money? How are they handling affairs foreign and domestic and economic? How are they behaving?

One way these news consumers of the future are going to be able to freely learn about these things is with passage of the federal Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, which was introduced a couple of weeks ago in both the Senate and the House.

My favorite congresswoman, Shelley Berkley of Nevada's 1st District, has already signed on as a co-sponsor. At last check, Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign and Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller had failed to do so.

Not only has Berkley signed on as a co-sponsor, she took time out of her weekend at home with the family a week ago to talk to the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists about the bill, which is sometimes also referred to as a shield law because it ensures the free flow of information by shielding reporters from most federal subpoenas in civil and criminal cases.

There are already similar laws in 33 states, and, though not as strong, every state except Wyoming currently provides some type of protection.

Over the past few years, more than 40 reporters and media organizations have been subpoenaed to reveal their sources, have had demands for their notes and photos or otherwise become the target of prosecutors or civil attorneys trying to buoy their cases by tapping into the hard work of the news media.

Reporters and freelancers have been jailed for lengthy periods for refusing to give up their sources.

Without the ability to protect sources we might never read such stories as the ones about conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, various Patriot Act issues, Abu Ghraib, Valerie Plame and so much more.

Frankly, as any of those young journalists fresh from high school civics courses should be able to tell you, the FFIA legislation should be unnecessary. The courts should have properly interpreted the First Amendment implications of abridging the press by chilling its ability to gather information. Instead, they acceded to their brethren in the ranks of prosecutors and plaintiffs attorneys.

Now it is up to the Congress to exercise its powers under the concept of checks and balances to correct the judicial drift by approving the bill that aims: "To maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media."

It is the duty of every generation to embrace the precepts outlined by the Founders and make sure this fragile Republic does not, as Benjamin Franklin warned it might, slip from our grasp.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.