By Zachary Drexler
If you are majoring in communications or hold any professional career in the media, you have definitely heard the term “shield law”. Shield laws are tools of protection for journalists. They prevent reporters from being forced to disclose the source of their information in news stories. There is no federal shield law, instead there are only laws enacted by the states. Here lies a problem because state shield laws vary in scope from one another. The differences that exist between the laws of the states can cause confusion as to which laws apply and which laws do not apply during national reporting.
The concept of a shield law originated in the 1972 Supreme Court case Branzburg v. Hayes. Reporter Paul Branzburg wrote a story about the drug hashish using information he had obtained by two drug dealers. Since their activities were illegal, Branzburg promised not to reveal their identities. However, once the story was published, Branzburg was subpoenaed by a grand jury to reveal his sources. The case reached the Supreme Court which ruled in a 5-4 decision that the press did not have a constitutional right of protection from disclosing confidential information in court, but the court acknowledged that the government must “convincingly show a substantial relation between the information sought and a subject of overriding and compelling state interest.” Although this ruling did not establish a federal shield law, it did give a more severe set of requirements for when a journalist could be subpoenaed in court. As years passed, many states began enacting their own shield laws to protect journalists from being forced to disclose information. But was that enough?
Groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists do not think so. Today, they are fighting for the passage of S. 448, the Free Flow of Information Act. Drafted in 2009, the bill proposes a federal shield law protecting journalists and their confidential sources. It would limit the enforcement of federal subpoenas against reporters who refuse to identify sources.
Kevin Smith, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists believes, “It’s apparent to members of SPJ that if we are to continue to provide the kinds of stories that the American public needs that we need passage of this bill to protect sources, journalists and the public’s interest.”
Clearly, a federal shield law is a vital element in the free flow of valuable information from journalists and the American citizens. I believe S. 448 is the federal statute that should have been established in 1972, and should be passed as soon as possible.
You can read more about the bill at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s111-448
Additional information on sheild laws available here http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/press/topic.aspx?topic=shield_laws