Senate Narrows Definition of “Journalist” for Proposed Shield Law

Thursday, September 26, 2013
Journalist Roland Hedley (Doonesbury)

The U.S. Senate is considering a change to the Free Flow of Information Act (FFIA), which protects journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. Under the proposed amendment (pdf), a “journalist” would be more narrowly defined, and it would exclude many independent reporters and bloggers from avoiding court subpoenas.


The change in the shield law, which was adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, focuses on protecting the profession of journalism rather than the activity of the profession, according to Carey Shenkman at AlterNet.


Freelance journalists, bloggers, nontraditional media and whistleblower organizations would be left unprotected by the statute if the change goes into effect.


The proposed amendment arrives a few months after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) first proposed the narrowing of the “journalist” definition in the bill sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York).


“More fundamentally, the distinctions created by the bill reinforce a privileged club for journalists,” Shenkman wrote. “In essence, the government is licensing the press, and treading down a path that courts have for decades cautioned “present[s] practical and conceptual difficulties of a high order.”


The courts have acknowledged that today’s media encompasses a broad range of people, and that technology has blurred the lines between being a journalist and an ordinary citizen.


In 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals said in Glik v. Cunniffe, which involved a man using his cellphone to videotape police, that “Changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw [and] news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”


UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh concurs, writing in a 2004 Op-ed: “Freedom of the press should apply to people equally, regardless of who they are, why they write or how popular they are.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Senate Is Busy Creating a Privileged 1st Amendment Club for 'Official' Journalists (by Carey Shenkman, AlterNet)

A New Media Shield law Would Only Shield Corporate Media (by Dell Cameron, Vice)

Amendment to S.987 (U.S. Senate) (pdf)

Sen. Feinstein Says only Salaried Journalists should be Protected by Shield Law (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Obama Clashes with Journalists over Confidentiality Law (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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