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The editorial staff of The Perry County News joins journalists around the nation in celebrating the advance of the Free Flow of Information Act out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this month. Known as the federal shield law, it will now go to the full Senate for a vote.
Such laws exist at the state level in most of the country, and a federal law would protect reporters in cases where they may not apply.
"This is a valuable piece of legislation that provides a greater flow of information to the American public and protects a journalist's anonymous sources," said Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, in a news release. "We are enthusiastic about it and its future in the legislative process."
Like the SPJ, we also cheer the judiciary committee's rejection of an amendment that would have narrowly limited the definition of a person protected by the shield law.
The law is important because it allows people to talk to news organizations freely in situations where revealing their identities could subject them to repercussions. People with inside knowledge of wrongdoing can provide information that journalists would otherwise be unable to obtain.
Attempts by officials to compel journalists to reveal information they glean in attempting to report issues of significance in their communities are nearly continuous. Some ascend the level of the absurd, such as a current effort by Cook County, Ill., State's Attorney Anita M. Alvarez to subpoena records maintained by and about students involved in the Medill Innocence Project. One of many such efforts nationwide, the Northwestern University project gives undergraduate students firsthand experience in investigating wrongful convictions. Reported extensively in newspapers nationwide, the subpoena came in response to the students making a solid case that a Chicago-area man was wrongly convicted 31 years ago.
In issuing a subpoena, Alvarez demanded student information, such as the grades they received for their work and expense reports they filed in tracking down information. She claims they are not journalists, but part of an "investigative agency," and therefore have no protection under Illinois' shield law.
She appears to be seeking not truth, but destruction of the messengers who communicated their findings.
The federal shield law, when adopted by the Senate, will show that this nation values truth above all. It will demonstrate our disdain for those who would attempt to intimidate those who seek it.