The Senate may be nearing a vote on the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, which has already cleared the House of Representatives. This bill, with its Orwellian title, is ostensibly designed to “shield” reporters from having to disclose the identity of anonymous sources when hauled into court by federal prosecutors. It is purportedly similar to shield laws in some 30 states.
But this is not a shield. It yet another dirty trick on democracy from the same Senate that stripped Americans of the right of habeus corpus, and awarded telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for illegal domestic spying. Here are two quick reasons why journalists, bloggers and engaged citizens should oppose this Trojan Horse.
1. The word shield appears no where in the bill. Put the text into Word and do a search to satisfy yourself. Then read the law’s summary statement — the legislative equivalent to a truth in advertising requirement — which says that its intent is “to maintain the free flow of information . . . by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media.” By its own admission this bill tells federal prosecutors when they can throw reporters into jail. How does that help?
2. This bill would allow corporations to jail journalists who reveal trade secrets. This is an astonishing gift to Corporate America that would squelch environmental, consumer safety and other forms of investigative reporting against corporate as opposed to government power. It is an entirely new power for corporations that works against journalists and the notion of public disclosure. Trade secret law allows corporations to protect manufacturing techniques and other processes from disclosure to competing firms. Current federal law allows companies to file federal charges against its own employees — some of whom must obviously know the secret — if they are caught revealing the secret to a competitor. The formula for Coke is a well-known example. Now say a source inside Coca-Cola told a reporter that the firm was putting cocaine back into the drink. That would be newsworthy. But a careful reading of the convoluted language of Section 2 (Compelled Disclosure from Covered Persons), Section 3, subsection C(i), reveals that a federal court may compel the reporter “to identify a person who has disclosed a trade secret”. So the reporter would have to snitch on the corporate employee who disclosed a trade secret because their conscience told them that the industrial process, defined by the corporation, was wrong or dangerous!
So let’s say you support the notion that there should be a federal shield law. And you realize that this bill is seriously flawed. What do you do? Thank the legislators who support your intent, but do not seek passage of this particular bill. Wait for the next Congress and go through the act to expunge these Big Brother provisions.