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Bloggers decry effort to limit protections for journalists’ sources

By   /   August 15, 2013  /   2 Comments

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

HARRISBURG — A U.S. senator’s attempt to limit protections for bloggers and other non-traditional media types in a congressionally-crafted shield law has elicited anger and outrage from many of those “new media” journalists.

Independent bloggers decried a proposed amendment by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., which says only paid journalists should be given protections from prosecution for what they say or write.

I GOT YOUR DEFINITION RIGHT HERE: Some conservative bloggers are none-too-happy about a proposed amendment to a federal shield law that would leave out unpaid journalists.

I GOT YOUR DEFINITION RIGHT HERE: Some conservative bloggers are none-too-happy about a proposed amendment to a federal shield law that would leave out unpaid journalists.

“This limited definition of who is a journalism flies in the face of trends in how news is being generated,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of Flashreport, a website that covers politics in California.

As a blogger who has built a following with credible, well-sourced news reports, Fleischman said the law should treat him the same way it would treat any journalist.  If a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle can legally shield their sources in certain circumstances, there is no reason he should not be able to do the same.

“This legislation will have a chilling effect on breaking stories,” Fleischman predicted, as it would limit unpaid journalists’ abilities to get sources inside government.

Of course, that may be exactly what the proposal is meant to do.

There are shield laws on the books in 40 states, but they do not apply in federal court.  The First Amendment of the U.S Constitution promises that the right to a free press “shall not be infringed.”

The proposed federal shield law would protect journalists from having to comply with subpoenas or court orders forcing them to reveal sources and other confidential information.  The important question, of course, is how to determine that the shield law applies to one person and not another.

But a narrower definition threatens to leave out a growing part of the world of journalism: bloggers, think tank reporters and independent journalists with no direct connection to print or media outlets.  While traditional media continues to struggle for survival in many ways, the new age of journalism is thriving online.

“Gone are the days when the masses had to depend on the New York Times to get their information,” said Kristina Ribali, director of new media for FreedomWorks, a grassroots conservative organization that has been instrumental in organizing the tea party movement.

Ribali said FreedomWorks has helped give a platform to local bloggers – turning them into the Thomas Paines of the Internet Age, a reference to the author of a famous pamphlet that helped instigate the American Revolution.

“Today’s bloggers are the pamphleteers of our time. They are holding elected officials accountable at every level of government,” she said.

The amendment offered by Feinstein would extend shield-law protections to those who work as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information,” though students working for news outlets would similarly be covered.

The definition seems to leave out the new tide of bloggers and citizen journalists who thrive on the Internet.

Feinstein is not the only member of Congress seeking to limit the definition of journalists.  Last week, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent letters to a number of organizations – including the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which runs Watchdog.org – seeking information about the legitimacy of nonprofit investigative reporters.

A spokesman for Durbin later told Watchdog.org the senator was not targeting any specific individual or group.

“Should bloggers be covered by a shield law? Yes. But every American who uses any form of new media is a blogger,” said Melissa Clouthier, who runs her own blog and also contributes to RedState.com, a conservative news and opinion website.

“That’s why sticking by the First Amendment is the safest bet. It covers the free speech of all Americans,” she said.

Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com.  Follow him on Twitter at @EricBoehm87

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Eric is a reporter for Watchdog.org and former bureau chief for Pennsylvania Independent. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he enjoys great weather and low taxes while writing about state governments, pensions, labor issues and economic/civil liberty. Previously, he worked for more than three years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, covering Pennsylvania state politics and occasionally sneaking across the border to Delaware to buy six-packs of beer. He has also lived (in order of desirability) in Brussels, Belgium, Pennsburg, Pa., Fairfield, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and elsewhere. He received a bachelor's degree from Fairfield University in 2009, but he refuses to hang on his wall until his student loans are fully paid off sometime in the mid-2020s. When he steps away from the computer, he enjoys drinking craft beers in classy bars, cheering for an eclectic mix of favorite sports teams (mostly based in Philadelphia) and traveling to new places.

  • http://rexcrouch.com/ Rex Crouch

    If this level of communism goes through, we all need to start paying each other.

  • Fred Clement

    U.S. Constitution, Amendment 1: “Congress shall make no law…..abridging the…press…” In addition, In Lovell v. City of Griffin (1938), Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes defined “press” as “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.

    Publication = Bloggers.

    This proposed legislation by Feinstein is a violation of the Constitution, but then again so is the entire Patriot Act and what President Obama is attempting to do in Syria…so what else is new?

    The American People need to stand up to the Government or We the People will loose all our Rights.

    ~ M

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