The Government Wants To Define Who Qualifies As A Journalist

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Journalists and netizens have mixed feelings about a long-sought federal media shield law that is headed to a vote in the Senate. The Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 would protect designated journalists from revealing their sources against a subpoena. Dozens of established media outlets are thrilled about the law, which was derailed in 2009 after WikiLeaks ignited a global debate about a new kind of journalism. But, after 3 years, no member of Congress seems willing to add in protections for leakers like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden.

“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” Schumer said. “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill,” said author Senator Charles Schumer.

Schumer, who has been cozying up to the tech elite, fought California Senator Diane Feinstein to expand the working definition of journalist to include bloggers (thanks, Chuck!). Feinstein wanted to law restricted to “real reporters” who earn a salary.

The current amended law [PDF] would give protection to bloggers and permit a judge to decide whether any new form of writer qualifies for protection.

Paul Boyle, Senior Vice President at the Newspaper Association of America, believes the law would have protected two AP journalists from federal investigators, who were going after them for exposing a thwarted terrorist plot.

Still, there’s no love for Assange, Snowden, or any of the future data leakers that may contribute valuable information to our democracy.

“Once we reach the point at which we even allow Congress to set parameters for who should, and who should not be considered a journalist, we’ve gone too far,” wrote Techdirt’s Mike Masnick. “Because we know that setting that precedent will lead to further encroachments down the road.

If congress defined the act of journalism, rather than the person, we wouldn’t have to worry about ad-hoc judicial determinations of who qualifies for First Amendment protection. But, that would require the government’s willingness to extend the First Amendment to WikiLeaks. They are evidently not prepared to do that.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 13-5 and is on the way to a full vote in the Senate.