Saturday, March 19, 2005

Shield Laws - Hmmm

I just saw an editorial by Steve Forbes in Forbes magazine about the need for a national shield law to protect reporters from having to reveal their sources.

I generally agree with Forbes, but I'm not at all sure about this.

As I recall from my journalism days, the argument for such laws, which many states have, is that people may decide not to talk to reporters if they think they won't remain anonymous.

To take an extreme example, if a reporter gets an interview with an organized crime boss, who details how his organization works, should the reporter be forced by the courts to reveal his source?

If the reporter is forced to reveal the crime boss's name, then it's reasonable to assume no criminal (except stupid ones) will ever talk to a reporter again. So what? Well, think of the potential value of the information the reporter was allowed to reveal. That in itself could be very valuable to police and governing bodies, and it wouldn't be wise to cut off some information by demanding all information.

And if someone should ask, "Well, who is a reporter? Does the state decide who a reporter is?" The answer would always be: "No! We absolutely don't want the state deciding who a reporter is. Anybody who publishes or broadcasts is a reporter."

Okay, that's the argument, and I always bought it. But that was then and this is now. Then, the very nature of printing and broadcasting limited the number of people to whom the shield laws applied, but now, with blogs, everybody can be a reporter - for free - and this presents difficulties.

Do shield laws now apply to everybody?

If they do, it seems all anyone would have to do to avoid testifying would be to start a blog and reveal some information about a criminal event, and that would immunize him or her from having to give any additional information.

The way to avoid that, of course, would be to have the government decide which people are reporters. Ouch! I'd rather have the first problem. Giving the government the right to decide who is a reporter gives the government the right throttle free speech.

So, loophole for criminals or the government's fat foot in the door of regulating the press. I'm not suggesting a solution here, but just pointing out that Congress has a tough problem.

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