Protection for press

Published May 21, 2007

From Watergate to Enron, significant events of vital public importance may not have come to light without confidential sources whose anonymity was protected by reporters. The Bush administration's warrantless domestic wiretapping and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison relied on confidential sources. These are stories that educate the public on the activities of government and arm citizens with information to make changes. A renewed effort in Washington to create a limited federal shield law for reporters deserves support from Florida's congressional delegation.

The Free Flow of Information Act is a bipartisan effort to add protections at the federal level that already exist in many states. It would essentially tell federal law enforcement and private lawyers that reporters are not part of their investigative team. Subpoenaing reporters for information should be the last stop - not the first - for a private attorney or prosecutor. Even then, disclosure should not be compelled without special circumstances.

The legislation would allow for forced disclosure of a journalist's sources only in rare instances such as threats to national security, imminent bodily harm or where there has been a release of trade secrets or certain personal medical and financial information. A court also would have to determine that the disclosure is in the public interest even when weighed against the harm it would do to news gathering in the future.

More than 30 states, including Florida, have shield laws in place to provide reporters with some level of protection. But there is a gaping hole at the federal level. In the last few years, more than 40 reporters and media companies have been called on to reveal confidential sources or work product in federal court.

In the past, the Justice Department has opposed granting reporters a qualified privilege to protect their sources. But the bill under consideration in Congress would largely track the basic elements of the department's own guidelines on compelling testimony from reporters.

A vigorous press is the key to uncovering abuses of government power and unbridled corporate greed. But without the ability to protect the anonymity of sources whose livelihoods and physical safety may be threatened, those stories will never come to light. Before too many sources no longer are willing to rely on reporters' assurances because too many have been hauled into federal court, Congress needs to act.

These Florida lawmakers have expressed support for the bill: Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Reps. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores; Kathy Castor, D-Tampa; Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota; and Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, are opposed.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., is reviewing the legislation but is noncommittal.

We encourage Brown-Waite, Bilirakis and Martinez to join their colleagues who support legislation that is vital to a free press' role in holding government accountable.