Shield Law: Senate Attempts to Make the “Right” of Free Press a “Privilege”

The Senate Judiciary committee has moved forward a bill that would offer “Shield Law” protections for journalists and prevent them from having to testify about their work. The bill moved forward on Thursday after members of the committee took it upon themselves to define who is a journalist and who is not.

Senator Charles Schumer says that this bill “balances the need for national security with that of a free press.” Though wouldn’t that beg the question, “If the press (media) is restricted (balanced with security), how could it be free?”

Of course, the real story here centers on Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has for weeks insisted that the committee must create and limit a definition for the title of “reporter.” Feinstein says that she cannot support everyone who has a blog with “special privilege,” going on to say “If Edward Snowden was to sit down and write this stuff, he would have privilege. I’m not going to go there.”

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Some groups like The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are supporting the bill which was approved by a vote of 13-5 as being a step in the right direction. The group supports a Feinstein amendment to the bill which allows it to cover journalists on several levels including freelancers, part-timers and student journalists. Though the bill itself doesn’t actually cover anyone because it goes on to allow the Feds to “compel disclosure” from journalists who have information that could stop or prevent crimes, prevent acts of terrorism or information that could cause “significant harm to national security.”

So let’s go back for a minute to what Senator Feinstein said about Edward Snowden. The Senator believes that the shield law should be limited because if it is not, Snowden could start his own website and be protected. But if the Feds believe that what Snowden shares with a reporter is a danger to national security, even under the structure of this law, the shield law would be ineffective.

Of course, through all of this, the biggest issue is that Congress is attempting to pass a law to “define a privilege” that is not a privilege at all. Freedom of the press is a right. According to Black’s Law Dictionary “a constitutional right is a right that has been guaranteed by the United States Constitution that cannot be violated by laws or by Congress.”

Freedom of the press is a Constitutional right and cannot be revoked, even for national security purposes. You likely already know this, so why is it important? Because please notice that Senator Feinstein above refers to extending shield law protection as “special privilege.”

Go back to Black’s Law Dictionary. A privilege is defined as, “A particular and peculiar benefit or advantage enjoyed by a person, company, or class, beyond the common advantages of other citizens.”

The biggest difference between a right and a privilege is one can be revoked and the other cannot. Consider for a moment the men who helped to frame revolution for the colonies at the birth of the country. No single person was more influential in sowing the seeds of revolution than Thomas Paine, who in 1776 self-published a pamphlet titled “Common Sense.” Paine was not a “professional journalist.” In fact, he was a corset maker by trade, and yet, it was Paine who was among the first to openly reject the idea of the colonies subjecting themselves to the British government thousands of miles away. During the early battles of the Revolution when the Continental Army suffered humiliating defeats, it was Paine who published papers titled “American Crisis.”

Poet Joel Barlow might have best described the role of Thomas Paine, one of the original “alternative journalists” in America, by saying “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

When Senator Feinstein claims that protecting a “real reporter” is important, but protecting the rights of a “17 year-old with a website” is not, she and other members of Congress are attempting to define who has permission to speak and who does not.

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