Last Friday, news broke that the Department of Justice had seized Associated Press phone records, in order to determine the source of a leak of information regarding a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen last year. Now, I should start by saying that the purpose of this article is not in any way to shift blame for what happened to the Republican party. While I support the Administration on many things, I am not afraid to call them out on those I disagree with. Seizing the AP’s phone records without notifying them was wrong, ran afoul of the protected First Amendment freedom of the press, should not have occurred, and should be disconcerting to all Americans regardless of party affiliation. However, while the administration is in fact to blame for the DOJ’s actions, the fact still remains that a federal shield law proposed in 2008, which was filibustered by Republican senators, quite possibly could have prevented this from occurring.
Shield laws provide protection to news reporters. These laws allow journalists to refuse to testify in court to information they have obtained during their investigations. Essentially, they protect reporters against being forced to disclose confidential information or sources to the government during court proceedings. Currently, 49 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of protections for reporters and 40 states (plus D.C.) have passed shield laws which explicitly give reporters this privilege. However, there is no federal shield law. Thus, when it comes to the federal government, reporters have no such protection.
More importantly, in 2008, a federal shield law did make its way to the floor of Congress and received broad bipartisan support in the House. Unfortunately, it was filibustered by Republican members of the Senate in a party-line 51-43 vote. Furthermore, following yesterday’s Congressional hearings on the seizures, the White House contacted Senator Chuck Schumer and requested that he re-introduce the Free Flow of Information Act, which would create a federal shield law. This law, had it passed in 2008, would have given journalists some protections for refusing to identify confidential sources in federal proceedings, and would have enabled journalists to request that a federal judge quash subpoenas for their phone records. It is a much needed piece of legislation that would have already been law, had Senate Republicans not shamelessly blocked it in 2008.
In closing, while it is unknown whether a federal shield law definitely would have prevented the seizure of phone records, the fact still remains that the only reason the law wasn’t passed was because the Republican party didn’t want it to. Moreover, while the Obama Administration is clearly at fault for it’s transgressions; for what it’s worth, Republicans must partially share the blame for their 2008 obstruction of this preventive legislation.
CORRECTION: (5/16/2013 5:33 PM CDT)
An earlier version of this article stated that “wiretapping of phone lines” had occurred, which was incorrect. We apologize for the confusion.