We don't need no stinkin' federal shield law for reporters.

Media criticism.
April 16 2008 6:13 PM

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Shield Law, Part 1

The Free Flow of Information Act would be a nightmare for journalists.

Read Part 2 of Shafer's screed against the shield law. 

(Continued from Page 1)

Could the Free Flow of Information Act actually increase harassment of reporters? Despite the clarity of Judge Posner's decision, legal murk still abounds. For instance, the current federal guidelines do not have the force of law. Yet this vagueness and their discretionary status give the Department of Justice just enough murk to conceal themselves whenever they decide not to go after reporters' confidential sources—which is almost all of the time.

A federal shield law would reduce this helpful murk by legally codifying the process of subpoenaing journalists. Prosecutors and judges could now say to the press, We have this new law that balances the First Amendment with the government's need for important and sensitive information that you hold. We're going to walk through it very slowly, and no bellyaching if we tell you to give up a source. You wrote the goddamn thing and lobbied Congress to pass it!

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Joining me in opposition to the Free Flow of Information Act is every Bush administration notable with access to a keyboard—but for very different reasons, of course. Writer Gabriel Schoenfeld agrees with the administration, only he's more adamant in his ire than they. (See his pieces in Commentaryand the Weekly Standard.)

But I'm not alone in taking a free-press tack against the allegedly "pro-press" bill. Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis casts a skeptical eye on press privilege in Chapter 6 of his new book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate,and late last year Washington Post national-security reporter Walter Pincus attacked the shield law in the Neiman Watchdog.

But I'm only getting started on this topic. Tomorrow, I'll be back to discuss what really irks me about this bill: It serves the corporate press to the detriment of other First Amendment practitioners, and it begins a process that could lead to the licensing of journalists.

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Read Part 2 of my rant against the shield law. What about Toni Locy? I don't think she fits in this piece. Send your gripes about the bill to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word stinkin' in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.