Past SPJ President Still Fights for Shield Law


Smith said it has taken intense negotiation to get the Obama Administration and the Justice Department behind the proposed legislation, and said Republican senators remain “in lockstep” on national security concerns voiced most prominently by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)., even though Smith considers such concerns to be a “red herring.”


“Senator Sessions is about fear-mongering,” Smith said. “He’s trying to instill fear in the public” that members of the media aid and abet terrorism.


Troublesome in a different way are Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who have sought a series of amendments to wording in the legislation that attempt to define a journalist.


“No one is excited or happy with the definition of a journalist,” he said.


Smith said there had been extensive give and take on the definition before the July 25 Web publication by WikiLeaks of material concerning troop deployment in Afghanistan.  He said it prompted Feinstein to “pull back,” and seek further amendment of the bill to specifically exclude organizations in which the “sole purpose is to collect and distribute unauthorized information,” and those working for them.


Others on the panel and in the audience voiced concerns that the measure that makes it to President Obama’s desk would not be the House-approved version, but the one awaiting a Senate vote. The House bill contains the more inclusive language, and would cover attempts to obtain reporters’ notes, unpublished photos and eyewitness testimony, while the Senate version would leave them subject to subpoena. Both versions would protect reporters from being coerced in most circumstances from having to testify.


RonNell Anderson Jones, professor of law at Brigham Young University, said the costs of subpoenas have already taken their toll on the ability of the media to maintain promises of confidentiality. She said a quarter of those newsrooms in a recent survey conducted for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said such subpoena requests are up in the past five years and that eight times the number of newsroom employees have been removed from stories as a response.  She said the study makes it clear that the smallest publications and broadcast newsrooms just comply with such subpoenas, instead of fighting them.


Despite that, Smith said he believes the time is past for letter-writing campaigns and intense public debate on the bill, saying he believes low-key negotiation is what is needed now to push the bill over the top.