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Should there be a federal shield law for journalists?

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia already protect the right of journalists to refuse to testify and identify their sources.

Our nation's Founders believed a democracy could be successful only if basic freedoms were protected. Freedom of the press is the freedom that makes all the others work so well. In a functioning democracy, an independent press gives citizens truthful information so they can make good decisions about their government.

It's not always easy for journalists to learn the truth. Sometimes, reporters can get information only if they promise confidentiality to those who provide it. If their names become public, the sources might lose their jobs or be punished. Reporters believe it's important to protect sources so information continues to flow to the public.

But sometimes, when reporters are working on important stories that end up in court, they are asked to testify about what they know and who their sources are. This threatens a reporter's ability to be a neutral observer. If sources who've been promised confidentiality believe that a reporter might identify them in court, they will stop talking. And the public will never learn the truth.

Over the past few years, reporters have been ordered to testify in federal court cases with startling frequency. Some have been sent to jail because they refused to identify a source.

Most states have "shield laws" that protect journalists from having to identify confidential sources, but the federal government does not. A federal shield law would ensure that journalists can protect their sources, and that citizens get the information they need to participate in our democracy.

—Lucy Dalglish
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The press plays an important role in our society, informing us about our government and our world. But as citizens, we also have important responsibilities to our government.

For instance, with rare exception, all citizens have a responsibility to provide evidence or give testimony to help solve crimes. "Privileges" not to provide evidence or testimony undermine our efforts to investigate serious crimes by putting certain types of evidence off-limits.

A federal shield law would provide exactly that kind of privilege. Because it could prohibit law-enforcement officials from obtaining critical evidence in important cases and because it gives special treatment to journalists—treatment that other citizens do not enjoy—it is bad policy.

It is also unnecessary. At the Justice Department, we have stringent internal guidelines that prevent us from subpoenaing evidence from the press, except in rare circumstances. To issue a press subpoena, we must first exhaust all other means to get that same information. Next, we must show the information is essential to help solve a serious crime. We apply these guidelines in a careful and thoughtful manner.

In the last 14 years, we have issued only 12 subpoenas to the media seeking confidential source information. We only ask for this information when we truly need it and when we cannot get the evidence elsewhere. For these reasons, a federal shield law for journalists is both bad policy and unnecessary.

—Chuck Rosenberg
U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Texas (U.S. Department of Justice)