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Editorial: Let’s enact a federal shield law

When we’re talking about freedom of the press, it’s clear that the federal government has somewhat of a split personality.

There’s the First Amendment with its broad-brush stroke, involving free speech and independent voices, and both the White House and Congress are proud to proclaim their support of these basic American freedoms.

Yet when we get into the nitty-gritty of everyday work, say, the actual work of reporters in gathering information, a process that sometimes includes using confidential sources, the federal government isn’t quite as willing to back up that support in the form of a federal shield law.

Such a law is very much in the news these days, given recent federal court action on an appeal by James Risen, a New York Times reporter. He has been refusing to reveal the confidential sources he used in his 2006 book, “State of War,” about the CIA’s effort to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. The federal government is prosecuting a CIA officer for leaking information, and wants Risen to testify.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has backed a federal judge ordering Risen to testify. Then the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. So the dilemma that Risen now faces is whether to name his sources or face a possibility of going to jail.

Now you might think, “what’s the big deal about disclosing information about a confidential source?” Any good journalist will tell you that giving up a source that he promised confidentiality will in all likelihood hurt Risen’s future ability to do his job effectively, especially when working on stories that expose abuses of power or government wrong-doing.

In fact, the precedent could injure all journalists working on such stories.

And whether it’s what the CIA is doing overseas, or what the NSA is doing here in spying on conversations or our computer search habits, it’s important for Americans to know what their government is actually doing — not just what their public relations departments put out in official press releases.

That’s where the Free Flow of Information Act comes into play. It is the federal shield law that has been slowly making its way through the two chambers of Congress. Having gone through the House several years ago, it finally got through the Senate when the Judiciary Committee passed it, after much debate, last September. Now, however, Senate leadership is reluctant to bring the matter to the floor for debate, despite bipartisan support.

Could it be that there are senators afraid of a federal shield law — or to have the public learn of their reasons against supporting such a bill? If they’re up to no good, they should be.

But if their conscience is clean, the bill should be a no-brainer. It contains provisions for exceptions that involve national security or preventing certain crimes. Also, should there ever be a dispute, the act contains a clause that would bring in a neutral federal judge to resolve the issue.

The Free Flow of Information Act isn’t something to fear, especially since it will provide some protection for reporters, so they can do their jobs in putting together crucial stories for the American public.

We urge our senators to help bring the act to the Senate floor and vote to pass it.

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