Following recent controversies in which reporters were jailed for refusing to reveal their sources to police, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill that could guarantee more rights for journalists.
The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (H.R. 2102) passed with bipartisan support in a 398 to 21 vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Oct. 16, allowing reporters to better protect the identity of anonymous sources, albeit with some exceptions. Additionally, the bill provides online journalists with the same rights as other news outlets.
Exceptions to the rule include anonymous sources who pose a threat to national security or severe bodily harm to others, and persons who reveal information such as trade secrets, health information or unlawful private data regarding consumers.
In a press release, 23rd District Representative Lois Capps stated that she strongly supports the new legislation.
“I believe that anonymous sources and confidentiality protections are critical for the success of a vibrant free press,” Capps said. “And free press has been vital to the functioning of our democracy.”
Capps’ press secretary Emily Kryder said the legislation – the first recent bill of its kind passed to protect journalists and their anonymous sources – is a positive indication of the United States’ attitude toward press freedom. The bill was passed almost immediately after it was brought to the floor this year.
“I think there was recognition that the federal government does very complex investigations that require a lot of caution,” Kryder said. “But at the same time, they can’t have a blank check and unlimited power to go outside the system. This bill recognizes that.”
The concepts of free press and protection of sources was brought to the attention of the public more candidly in recent years. In 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was sentenced up to four months in jail for refusing to reveal her sources.
In the past, Congress was extremely generous in cases such as wiretapping, Kryder said, but it is beginning to lose sympathy for the Bush administration’s policies.
“Their unwillingness to shed much-needed light on what they are doing is unprecedented,” Kryder said. “The amount of info they redact or keep from view, in terms of congressional oversight purposes … things you need to have oversight to and the government should have access to, the Bush administration doesn’t want people to see, so it’s a constant tug of war.”
Should the bill pass into law, it still does not offer journalists complete protection, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In a press release, the ACLU stated that the legislation has little significance, claiming many of the numerous amendments detract from the power of the bill to protect the media.
“Amendments to the bill added exceptions that will limit the public’s access to information even in cases where there is no tangible threat to national security or public safety,” the press release stated. “Under the exceptions added to the bill, the administration can arbitrarily designate a journalist as a ‘terrorist’ based solely on unsubstantiated evidence of their alleged association and speech.”
In a press release, ACLU Policy Counsel James Tucker said the legislation is an important start to better protecting the rights of the press.
“America’s press must be allowed to be a vigilant watchdog against abuse of power and corruption,” Tucker said. “This bill marks a first step in ensuring that the press will not be muzzled from exposing illegal government programs, from warrantless wiretapping to kidnapping and torture, but we must go further to protect reporters.”
Kryder said the vote is a strong statement by Congress to the current administration, and said she hopes this matter will move quickly through the other branches of government.