Bill would protect the flow of information

Our nation’s Founders disagreed on much. But on one thing – the necessity of a vigorous, unfettered press to defend Americans’ rights – they were solidly in agreement. As Thomas Jefferson put it, ”Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

So firmly united were they on the question that when it came up during the Constitutional convention of 1787, most delegates thought curbing the press would be unthinkable under the system of government they were creating. No specific safeguards were needed, they believed.

Later, of course, such guarantees were provided by the First Amendment.

More than two centuries later – as a few of the Founders anticipated – ”national security” is being used as an excuse not just to limit journalists, but to harass and intimidate them. Seizure of reporters’ phone and e-mail records was undertaken without a pause by the federal government. That has occurred on a broad scale.

Most veteran journalists are not about to be intimidated by the government. What concerns us deeply is that many of our sources for news – with information you, the people, have a right to know – will be frightened at the possibility their identities will be exposed.

Let us be clear: We are not talking about leakers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, but of the many conscientious public servants and others who often reveal corruption and other criminal acts, along with the all-too-common waste in government.

Unless the government is limited in its ability to surveil and harrass journalists, only the most courageous whistleblowers will work with us to defend you.

Of course, limiting our ability to do our jobs is precisely what some in government have in mind. ”National security” is merely a convenient excuse.

Some protection against such abuse would be provided by the proposed Free Flow of Information Act. Congress is expected to debate it when lawmakers return to Washington from their recess this month.

We in the press sometimes refer to such bills as ”shield laws.” In essence, they shield us – and you – from some government efforts to muzzle us.

The bill is far from the kind of ironclad assurance of press freedom the Founders might have favored. But it will help stave off some abuses.

Congress should approve the bill and President Barack Obama should sign it into law. Otherwise, by allowing government to limit the free flow of information, Americans may find it is lost.


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