[…] In May, a Senate bill titled the “Free Flow of Information Act Act of 2013” (S. 987) was introduced by Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham. The bill was originally introduced in 2007 (S. 2035), and then again in 2009 (S. 448), but either died in committee or failed a cloture vote. The bill is supported by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, but only if it includes specific language that excludes individuals she claims, “are not reporters at all.” Schumer echoed Feinstein’s concerns, specifically calling out WikiLeaks, saying, “We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that.” At the time of writing, the “Free Flow of Information Act” is schedule for more debate before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 12.
This bill ironically purports 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.” The proposed law does not describe a “journalist” by that name, but instead a “covered person.” It defines this individual as someone who “regularly” reports on the news and excludes self-employed journalists. The House version of this bill (H.R. 1962) includes precarious language, solely defining this “covered person” as someone who reports for a news organization for “financial gain or livelihood.” The bill introduced by Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) suggests that the legal protections, already afforded to every US citizen under the Constitution, will only extend to an individual reporting the news for money.
It’s common practice for politicians to color coat the purpose behind a controversial piece of legislation in an attempt to disguise it with a friendlier title for their colleagues and the general public. The current “Free Flow of Information Act” under discussion does nothing to support the free flow of information. In practice, this law would endanger internet bloggers, freelance writers, and citizen journalists who are guilty of nothing more than performing acts of journalism. Essentially, members of Congress have proposed a “media shield law” that paradoxically has no hope of shielding the media—unless of course the reporter in question happens to work for an establishment like CNN or the New York Times.
The US Constitution does not mince words on this subject: Congress has no authority to abridge the freedom of the press. Most importantly, many of today’s respected citizen journalists represent more closely the kind of press originally referred to in that revered document, and certainly more so than anyone occupying a desk at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Some would argue that it’s essential for breaking news to be handled by so-called professionals in the modern era, a period of heightened national security, that in a time when government whistleblowers are disclosing classified documents claimed to damage US foreign relations and potentially endanger the lives of American troops abroad, no one person should have the right to report the facts of these delicate issues. While there should always be a consistent effort to verify information and weigh its value to the public against the cost of its disclosure, sometimes the close relationship that professional news companies have with the US government interferes with what’s best for the American public.