October 24, 2007

OPINION: No Shield for J-Students

Walking on the Ledge
Sheilding Student Journalists

Last month, the US House of Representatives passed the first part of a long overdue federal shield law for journalists.

by Miguel M. Morales

Not all journalists celebrated when H. R. 2102, known as the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, or FFIA, passed Oct 16.

I was one of them.

A statement issued by the
Society of Professional Journalists says that as written, FFIA protects bloggers and freelancers.

However, as written, the House version of FFIA covers “a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain.

Most bloggers and freelancers do not fall into this category, nor do student journalists.

Adam Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, an organization advocating the legal rights of student journalists, agrees.

"The [House] language would exclude the vast majority of student journalists," he said in an e-mail. "but it's not as grim as all that."

Goldstien is referring to another shield law, S.2035 (also known as the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007), that is currently in the Senate.

My knowledge of how bills become laws amounts to this 'Schoolhouse Rock' cartoon.

What Goldstien and other student journalist advocates find hopeful is that S.2035 covers “a person who is engaged in journalism.” This would truly cover bloggers, freelancers and student journalists.

However, S.2035 also has a major drawback in that it only applies in cases where a journalist explicitly promises confidentiality.

"At some point, the versions will have to be reconciled," Goldstien said. "The reason for the disagreement is the difficulty in attempting to define who is or isn't a 'journalist.'"

"The problem is that, with everyone communicating online, everyone is a publisher in a sense," he continued, "and if you define 'journalist' that broadly, then instead of a reporter's privilege, you end up with a universal privilege not to answer to a judge, which isn't the goal."

The longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history, Josh Wolf, spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate with law enforcement. Wolf's blog, Media Sphere, explains why journalists need a federal shield law -- but not FFIA.

"There's a sense that student journalists could be covered in the eventual law, it's just a question of finding the right way to do it and making people in the House aware of the problem," Goldstein added.

In the long term, students should join professional journalism organizations and urge them to advocate protection for student journalists.

In the short term, we need to urge Congress to include bloggers, freelancers and student journalists in the final version of the federal shield law. If not, we’ll follow the Schoolhouse Rock lead and yell a few interjections of our own.