Shield law may turn on who is a journalist

Congress may soon consider the first federal-level shield law — protecting journalists' sources for stories — but an authority in the field predicts lawmakers will take a limited view of who, in an age of blogger proliferation, is a "real" journalist.

The House has passed a bill with a liberal interpretation of what a journalist is, but the Senate's bill defines the profession as a full-time livelihood and covers only confidential sources, said media attorney Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, speaking Monday at Southern Oregon University's annual First Amendment Forum.

Professional journalists have long considered their relationship with sources to be inviolate — much like the attorney-client or priest-parishioner relationship — and journalists have fought court rulings that threaten source confidentiality, at the same time the profession resists new laws that "license" them by defining their rights, Dalglish noted.

Key to getting a national shield law to the Senate floor are Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., members of the Judiciary Committee, she said. Durbin and Feinstein want to shield those "committing journalism" by working full time for a newspaper, magazine or book, but not to protect bloggers, students or freelancers.

While President Obama pledged transparency in government, "he hasn't delivered yet," said Dalglish. Obama promised support for a national shield law in his campaign for the Senate, but once in the White House, she said, he was lobbied by the Justice Department, FBI and CIA, who told him, "You can't let them get away with this." The president waffled on his pledge, she noted, but the New York Times uncovered the shift in policy, forcing the administration to tell the Justice Department to back off.

"It was a double-cross," Dalglish said. "It was a shock."

The proliferation of bloggers and digital video cameras has blurred the line between genuine journalism and the situation Dalglish witnessed at the 2008 Republican Convention, where "every third person had a camera."

"It was ugly," Dalglish said. "It was dangerous, and it's only going to get worse. Not everyone who thinks he is a journalist is a journalist. They behaved like thugs. They weren't interested in journalism."

Dalglish said the Reporters Committee, a nonprofit organization providing free legal assistance to journalists, seeks a federal shield law to "slow down the subpoena rate on journalists. It can only be good for democracy."

Two recent students of Northwestern University's School of Journalism, Celine Montoya and Kim Wetzel, told the forum they encountered roadblocks in their degree work on the Innocence Project, a student journalism effort to uncover new witnesses and evidence that could free wrongly convicted persons.

The students were working to overturn the murder conviction of Anthony McKinny, who was convicted in 1978, despite a good alibi, because he was seen running toward the crime scene.

Montoya said the students found their grades subpoenaed by the Illinois state attorney, who was trying to find bad grades to undermine students' credibility. The students refused, saying grades are confidential.

"We believe he didn't commit the crime," said Montoya, who now works in public radio. "There was no evidence. He was beaten during interrogation " We're in the position of being vilified for wanting to maintain the privacy of students. As journalists, it's important to us to maintain the integrity of our work." The Innocence Project had led to the release of 11 men convicted of felonies — five of them on death row.

Wetzel, a 1999 journalism graduate of SOU, said the journalism students select only convicts who seem most likely to be innocent, then retrace the steps of all parties, interviewing them and even performing stakeouts.

"In Chicago, there's unfortunately a huge, systematic problem with police abuse," said Wetzel, now a newspaper journalist. "It's ridiculous and offensive for them to try to (invalidate) exculpatory evidence produced by us, based on our grades. That isn't the issue at all " I hope they don't muzzle (the Project)."

Dalglish observed, "What they're trying to do here is target journalists. They're trying to leak information that students are trying to buy witnesses " It's just plain stupid. It's a very disturbing case."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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