A U.S. Senate committee is considering a proposal to ensure that federal authorities exhaust all other means of gathering information before seeking to force journalists to reveal confidential sources. This is a good idea, not just because it protects journalists but because it protects citizens against an overly intrusive federal government and helps ensure that the public learns of government wrongdoing.
At issue is when and how writers, broadcasters or other people who gather and distribute news should be threatened with jail to force them to reveal the name of a person who provided information with an understanding that their identity would remain secret.
Such a shield law can be crucial to making sure that the First Amendment works as the framers intended. The Constitution says that Congress shall "make no law" abridging the freedom of the press. But if federal officials can squelch the release of sensitive information — even if their practices are found to fit within the Constitution — they can have a chilling effect that keeps the public in the dark about government abuses.
The proposal before the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee passed the House in similar form with bipartisan support. It defines a journalist broadly enough to be relevant at a time when news gathering is done not just by professional journalists but also by citizens dedicated to uncovering and sharing information with the community. Yet the proposal is narrow enough that its protections won't endanger national security or interfere with the criminal justice system.
To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.