The next few days will likely determine whether the PRESS Act becomes the law of the land before Congress adjourns or whether presidents and prosecutors can continue spying on journalists and their sources.
While the PRESS Act was introduced by a Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden, it is by no means partisan legislation.
Even before Sen. Mike Lee co-sponsored the PRESS Act with Wyden, Republican former House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte wrote in support of the bill. Conservatives, from Lindsey Graham to Mike Pence to Jim Jordan, have a long history of supporting similar “shield” legislation prohibiting newsroom surveillance by any administration. Forty-nine states, red and blue, protect reporters against government snooping, leaving the federal government — which has surveillance capabilities far superior to local authorities — as the outlier.
Here are just a few reasons why Republicans should prioritize passing the PRESS Act.
Conservative journalists are often targets of government surveillance
When the Obama administration wanted to uncover a source of then-Fox News journalist James Rosen in 2013, it secretly spied on him and read his emails.
At the time, Fox News and Rosen (who’s now at Newsmax) had no legal recourse when the government baselessly characterized Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator for doing his job — gathering and reporting the news.
Had the PRESS Act been in effect, Rosen would have received notice and a hearing before any warrant or legal order could be issued. And at that hearing, the government would have needed to prove that disclosure of Rosen’s records was necessary to prevent terrorism or imminent violence. It, of course, would never have met that burden, given it was investigating already 4-year-old reporting.
The PRESS Act protects all journalists – regardless of politics
The bill is broad enough to protect both mainstream and independent outlets, regardless of political leanings, so that no administration, present or future, can circumvent the law to retaliate against adversarial journalists.
Here’s how it defines a journalist: “a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, investigates, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”
Simple as that. There are no loopholes, caveats or ambiguities that could conceivably allow the current administration, or a future one, to play favorites.
The PRESS Act would help independent and alternative media thrive
The PRESS Act is neutral not only on the political leanings of the journalists it protects but on the size and reach of media outlets. Critics of the mainstream media should embrace the PRESS Act because it gives upstarts, who do not have armies of lawyers to fight subpoenas, room to grow unimpeded by official harassment.
The PRESS Act would protect, for example, Project Veritas — which claimed it was improperly surveilled after an FBI raid last year — to the same extent as it would protect The New York Times, as long as they are all engaged in legal journalistic practices.
That’s because the act does not limit its reach based on who the journalist is or any official credentials they may or may not have — it instead focuses entirely on the act of newsgathering.
The PRESS Act is strong anti-surveillance legislation
Constitutional originalists should appreciate that the PRESS Act not only strengthens the First Amendment but the Fourth. Unlike many past shield bills, its protections against government overreach extend not only to journalists themselves but to their phone, email and other technology providers.
New technologies mean new ways to spy on citizens. The PRESS Act recognizes this by ensuring its protections cannot be evaded by targeting tech companies instead of news rooms.
The PRESS Act recognizes national security concerns
A free and aggressive press benefits all aspects of government, including national security. That being said, the PRESS Act recognizes law enforcement concerns through exemptions when information in a journalist’s possession is necessary to prevent terrorism or imminent violence.
It then establishes common sense procedures to ensure that the exemption is not abused.
Most harassment of journalists isn’t political
Incidents that affect presidential politics tend to get the most attention. But most of the abuses the PRESS Act would curtail occur off the national stage. Journalist Joshua Miller broke the story of a father buying a coach’s home at a premium to get his son into Harvard, handing prosecutors the case on a silver platter. He was rewarded with a subpoena this October.
Music critic Jim DeRogatis received death threats and a bullet through his porch window after exposing musician R. Kelly’s abuse of underage women but he was forced to risk his safety to contest a subpoena at Kelly’s latest trial in September.
Americans can all agree that the law should encourage — not impair — reporting of misconduct by elite universities and sex crimes by celebrities. That has nothing to do with politics.
The bottom line
The PRESS Act will vastly improve the quality of journalism — all journalism — and ensure citizens of all political stripes have access to the information they need to be informed participants in our democracy. It will protect journalists and their sources from government abuse — no matter the party in the White House.
We’ve allowed our journalists to operate too long without any legal guarantee that they won’t be spied on by the government and without the ability to assure potential sources that they won’t be unmasked in court. That’s not a tolerable status quo in a country that values free speech.
Everyone who believes in the First Amendment should contact their Senators today and let them know that protecting journalists from government overreach is absolutely vital and cannot wait.