The Shield Law Of the Land

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Today should be a historic day for journalists in this country.

The House is scheduled to vote on a shield law bill that would protect journalists by giving them limited immunity from overzealous prosecutors. Speaker Nancy Pelosi almost certainly wouldn’t have given the bill floor time if it didn’t have the votes to pass.

The invocation of terrorism and national security has become something of a blank check to pursue leaks and hide information from the public. While some of that is valid, too much of that is dangerous to the freedoms we are trying to spread to darker corners of the world.

The Bush administration has been solidly against the shield law, saying the Justice Department isn’t out to get journalists and that the bill is overbroad and unnecessary.Most states have a shield law or some case law to protect journalists and their sources and the nation still stands, so that argument doesn’t wash. Sure, it is easier for Justice Department attorneys not to have to take reporters and their sources rights into account, just as it is easier to interrogate terrorists without conventional international protections against torture, but that isn’t a good argument for allowing it.

If the bill passes, it still must be reconciled with one on the Senate side that has passed in committee. A key issue may be how far the shield extends online. Is every blogger a journalist? No, but the definition of journalists has expanded beyond traditional boundaries, and the law needs to reflect that.

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