SPJ Madison sent this letter Thursday to Sens. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin:
In a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
Jefferson noted in his letter to John Jay that Americans should be “governed by reason and truth” and that the most effective avenue toward such “is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
Recent actions by the U.S. Department of Justice endanger our liberties by putting a chill on the work of journalists and discouraging whistleblowers from coming forward with evidence of government wrongdoing. The DOJ actions also raise the question of whether the government is deliberately seeking to silence the press. As a result, we are writing to urge your support of a federal shield law, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 (H.R. 1962 and S. 987).
A federal shield law would protect journalists’ confidential sources and the public’s right to hold its government accountable. While 49 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of shield protections, such a law does not exist at the federal level and its absence jeopardizes the ability of the press to do its job.
A shield law would ensure the kind of democracy envisioned by Jefferson. It would require judicial review of executive branch subpoenas of journalists’ records. Such a review would provide a key check on executive branch power. News organizations should also have the opportunity to challenge government subpoenas in court.
A free and open press is key to a vital democracy. Our city, Madison, Wisconsin, was named for James Madison, father of the Bill of Rights. Madison believed that a healthy democracy depends upon a knowledgable citizenry: “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”
We don’t like the idea of journalists – who are to hold government accountable – turning to government for protection. But the Department of Justice’s unconscionable action seeking wide-ranging information and records about the Associated Press without the news agency’s knowledge must be addressed. The Free Flow of Information Act would provide a qualified privilege for journalists to protect confidential sources and allow us to do our jobs, and to, like Madison hoped, provide citizens with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions in a representative democracy.
Mark Pitsch, president, and members of the executive committee of the Madison pro chapter, Society of Professional Journalists