Openness in government is at the core of democracy; and a free and responsible press helps ensure that openness.
To expose matters that officials and bureaucrats would rather be kept hidden, reporters sometimes must use unnamed sources to protect whistle-blowers from losing their jobs. But currently there is no federal law that protects the journalists from being compelled to reveal those sources.
The Free Flow of Information Act would offer that protection, and the bill is under consideration by the full Senate. Action is likely early in the current session. We urged Sens. Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly to vote for it.
The Free Flow of Information Act (S. 987) would allow journalists to protect the identities of their confidential sources in federal court. The proposal has strong bipartisan support. In September, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill by a 13-5 vote. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has 20 co-sponsors from both parties.
The Department of Justice put confidential sources at risk by secretly obtaining the communications records of reporters from The Associated Press and Fox News. This overreach by the department has had a chilling effect on communications between reporters and sources. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said, “Some of our long-trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking to us, even on stories that aren’t about national security. In some cases, government employees that we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone and some are reluctant to meet in person.”
The bill would establish clear and reasonable rules for when the government and others can seek information from journalists and their service providers that could compromise confidential sources. An independent federal judge would review all information requests to journalists and their service providers to prevent government overreach and to protect the public’s right to know.
The bill is not a free pass for the press. It creates a qualified, not absolute, privilege. There are exceptions to the privilege, including a national security exception that allows the government to obtain information to prevent an act of terrorism or other harm to national security.
The bill would apply to the vast majority of people who do journalism regardless of medium or technology and includes a safety valve that gives federal judges the discretion to protect the source of someone who does not fit precisely into the definition of “covered journalist.”
We urge our Hoosier senators to support this bill. It will help us fulfill our role as a government watchdog and, more importantly, keep the public informed.