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Senator Feinstein: Unpaid bloggers don’t count as "journalists"

Fri, 08/09/2013 - 4:17pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

The government’s assault on its own citizenry continues....

According to Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), journalists shouldn’t be protected by “shield laws” unless they draw salaries. Apparently, unpaid bloggers and citizen journalists don’t count as "real reporters."

A bevy of states and locales have “shield laws” that extend legal protections to journalists who wish to protect their sources, but thus far, the federal government hasn’t passed any national statutes. Enter the Free Flow of Information Act (introduced in 2007) which, among other things, attempted to define what constitutes a “journalist”, and thus, who receives legal protections.

It seems simple enough. We all know what a “journalist” is, right? Here’s the government’s (proposed) definition of “journalism”:

“the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”

Fairly straightforward. This would presumably cover the broad spectrum of national media, the “mainstream media,” and bloggers. But this isn’t satisfactory for Senator Diane Feinstein, who wants a narrower definition – specifically, one which excludes citizen journalists. And the Free Flow of Information Act has once again hit a snag (six years and counting) in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sens. Feinstein (D-CA) and Durbin (D-IL) proposed an amendment to the original definition, as follows. A journalist is one who:

“obtains the information sought while working as a salaried employee of, or independent contractor for, an entity.”

Don’t draw a salary? You’re on your own, 1st Amendment be damned, and authorities can force you to cough up your sources.

Feinstein claimed the original definition could provide protection to employees of Wikileaks, which relies on anonymous sources. But her intention was clear. Techdirt points out the worst-kept secret in journalism:

“This is a protective move based partially on ignorance and partially on the reality that major news networks are easier to control, seeing as most aren't willing to give up access to the Beltway by pissing off its residents.”

According to the proposed bill, authorities can’t compel journalists to reveal their sources unless a Federal court determines the information is vital to a criminal investigation and the investigators have exhausted all alternative sources.

In other words, if the Feds want the information, they’ll get it, but the bill at least makes it difficult for elected officials to trample the 1st Amendment.

But Sen. Feinstein isn’t satisfied with this rather liberal definition of “freedom of the press.”

"I’m concerned this would provide special privilege to those who are not reporters at all," she said. (emphasis mine)

The word Feinstein’s looking for is “rights” – as in “shall not be abridged.”

To his credit, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) opposes Feinstein’s revisions:

"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."

For the record, this is the 1st Amendment, as presently worded (emphasis mine):

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Feinstein’s revisions don’t specifically ban free speech. But they do empower the government to harass those who don’t fit its arbitrary definition of “journalist,” thereby having the intended effect of restricting free speech. Because of their privileged position (and desire to retain it), established media outlets (with salaried employees) are far more receptive to federal demands. And if sources cannot remain secret, they eventually dry up.

Just so we’re clear: I have zero respect for individuals and media outlets who intentionally seek to harm the United States by compromising national security. But precedents like Feinstein’s would put the 1st Amendment on a slippery slope to irrelevance (much like the 4th, 9th, and 10th Amendments).

A novel way to protect secret government programs...

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