The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is calling on Congress (and voters who elect Senators and Congressmen) to back off a pair of bills that take direct aim at the freedoms of bloggers, independent journalists and small media outlets to gain access to information while protecting their sources.
Introduced in May, the pair of bills (H.R. 1962 and S.B. 987) attempt to define who “journalists” are in such a way that favors the mainstream media while excluding just about everybody else. That’s accomplished with the phrase “covered person,” which the legislation goes on to define as someone who makes his living from researching and reporting the news or who regularly researches and reports news.
The problem with that, says EFF, is that the legislation seeks to endorse a professional class of journalists — ironically so, since the professional class of journalists is often most ineffectual, as industry maverick Gay Talese once observed. Why can’t Congress just do the Constitutional thing and submit to the idea that anyone, at any time, can be a “journalist?” If today’s lawmakers just have to fill their time in Washington by drafting more legislation, why can’t they at least do a little less harm by simply defining the practice of journalism instead of the person engaged in it?
If these bills–support for which the White House reaffirmed in its DOJ report–pass without change, Congress effectively will create two tiers of journalists: the institutional press licensed by the government, and everyone else. That’s a pretty flimsy shield if what we are really trying to protect is the free flow of information.
…So what’s the solution? Congress should link shield law protections to the practice of journalism as opposed to the profession. Not only does this fix ensure that bloggers and freelancers are not categorically denied access to the protections to which they should be entitled under the law, but also it addresses lawmakers’ concerns, recently voiced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in a June 26 op-ed, that in the absence of a legal definition of journalist anyone can claim to be one, thereby diluting the law by stretching it beyond any relevant boundaries. We can have a line in the sand; it simply needs to be one that is meaningfully tied to what journalism actually is…
It won’t be long before each bill comes up for a vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to begin marking up its version of the bill within a week. The House already has referred its version to two judiciary subcommittees. And the legislation, of course, has President Barack Obama’s full support.