Tribune editorial: Judge's ruling shows need for a federal shield law
A federal judge's ruling last month to hold a former USA Today reporter in contempt of court shows more than ever the crucial need for a federal shield law.
Judge Reggie B. Walton found Toni Locy in contempt of court for refusing to name the confidential sources who shared information about former Army scientist Dr. Steven J. Hatfill -- considered a person of interest in the 2001 anthrax attacks.
The judge declined to recognize any common law privilege that would have permitted Locy to shield her source's identity. He then imposed an escalating fine that starts at $500 and goes up to $5,000 for every day Locy refuses to comply.
Worse yet, the court also acted to bar anyone, including her employer, from paying Locy's fines or compensating her for her payments. In the past, journalists around the country have chipped in to help out reporters in similar situations.
So why should the average person care?
It boils down to this: When there is wrongdoing going on in government, those most likely to know about it are also those with the most to lose -- government employees. They usually won't tell a reporter what they know unless they can remain anonymous.
Rulings like Judge Walton's force a journalist to choose between keeping what is essentially a sacred promise to a source -- and being ruined financially -- or betraying that source, losing all credibility, and giving journalism in general a black eye.
The solution is simple, according to the Society of Professional Journalists: A federal shield law to protect journalists and ensure that people will continue to be informed about what's going on in government.
"The ability of journalists to promise their sources confidentiality, and have sources understand that that promise will be honored, is crucial to the process of reporting important information to the public," said SPJ President Clint Brewer.
"The Federal Media Shield Bill is a vital step for champions of the First Amendment and a free press to ensure that journalists will not be jailed by the government for doing their jobs."
"It's outrageous that a judge would want to fine a reporter up to $5,000 a day to give up information she can't remember, that is available from other sources, and that doesn't rise to the level of importance that is necessary for forcibly revealing confidential sources," said David Cuillier, SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee chairman.
"This is a prime example for why Congress should approve a federal shield law. Useless witch hunts chill the flow of crucial public-interest information, which ultimately hurts democracy and American citizens."
The U.S. House passed its version of a federal shield law in October. The Senate version now awaits a floor vote.
The Senate should pass this crucial bill and President Bush should sign it into law. It's time.