What do the leak of a CIA agent’s name, a murder in Houston, and steroids in baseball all have in common? All were news stories involving confidential sources — and all resulted in reporters being sentenced to jail for refusing to reveal their identities.
Journalists shouldn’t have to choose between protecting their confidential sources or going to prison. Thankfully, if Congress passes the newly reintroduced federal reporter’s shield law known as the PRESS Act, they won’t have to, at least in federal cases.
That’s good news for both the press and, more importantly, the public’s right to know. The PRESS Act would protect newsgathering and the free flow of information to the American people, since journalists often rely on confidential sources — who may fear being jailed, fired, or retaliated against for speaking to the press — to report vital news stories in the national interest.
As we’ve explained before, the PRESS Act is one of modern times’ most important pieces of federal legislation protecting First Amendment rights. It’s a bipartisan bill that last year saw strong support both from major media outlets and civil society organizations. Last Congress, the PRESS Act was passed unanimously by the House and came within a hair’s-breadth of becoming law before it was stopped by a nonsensical objection from a single senator.
The newly reintroduced bill has bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate (Sens. Durbin, Lee, and Wyden) and will have bipartisan cosponsors in the House (Reps. Raskin and Kiley). These members should be applauded for their work to protect journalists at a time when egregious threats to their safety and legal protections persist.
The PRESS Act would mean journalists can’t be threatened with crippling fines or jail time unless they cough up the names of confidential sources or other information about their newsgathering. It would also stop the federal government from spying on journalists through their phones, email providers, and other online services. This anti-surveillance provision is especially important in the digital age, when reporters often must use email, cloud, and messaging services, as well as social media, to communicate with sources or store their work.
The PRESS Act covers both professional and citizen journalists. It applies regardless of the perceived political leanings of a news outlet or reporter. In other words, it would shield a blogger or a Pulitzer Prize winner, a reporter for Fox News or Media Matters for America. It would stop administrations — either Democrat or Republican — from spying on journalists whose reporting angers or embarrasses them.
At the same time, the PRESS Act also has some limited exceptions that apply when necessary to prevent terrorism or imminent violence. These commonsense limits let us both protect reporters in the vast majority of cases and allow the government to compel disclosures in exceptional (and, at least so far in U.S. history, entirely hypothetical) instances where source confidentiality could somehow lead to terrorism or violence.
Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have shield laws or equivalents recognized by courts. But without a federal shield law, journalists still risk being jailed or punished for refusing to reveal sources or their newsgathering material in federal courts, congressional inquiries, and administrative proceedings. And although guidelines issued by the Department of Justice last year limit federal subpoenas to reporters, those guidelines could be rolled back or even ignored by future presidential administrations. (For example, it’s a safe bet that a future President Trump would not be a fan.)
We can’t afford to leave reporters’ ability to protect their sources up to the whims of a future administration. We need a law that protects the journalists and confidential sources that Americans rely on to expose wrongdoing by government, private companies, and powerful individuals. The PRESS Act is the strongest shield law Congress has ever proposed. Now it’s time to pass it.