Viewpoint: Journalists need shield to protect public's right to know

The power of the press, although mostly invisible, should never be taken for granted. As student journalists at The Signpost, we are dipping our toes into the pool of constitutional rights. We are barely discovering what it means to be able to print the truth.

But it would seem like the government, those in particular at the Department of Justice, don’t want the truth printed, or at least want us journalists to reveal who ratted them out. This is a violation of our rights not only as journalists, photographers, bloggers and videographers, but also as American citizens.

In recent news, the Justice Department of the federal government seized phone records from Associated Press reporters. In May, the Justice Department revealed it had secretly obtained the incoming and outgoing phone call records for 20 different lines at different AP offices.

Although AP wasn’t the initial target of the Justice Department’s witch-hunt, the feds snooped because they were trying to find who leaked some allegedly classified information. Another past instance of the government’s mistreatment of journalists happened in 2006. Blogger Josh Wolfe of California was jailed for 226 days for refusing to hand over a video he shot of a protest.

The cat is out of the bag; the Justice Department’s abuse of the freedom of press is just absurd. Secretly seizing phone records and emails is one thing, but bullying journalists into revealing their sources? Come on, this is America.

Sources who will only go on the record as anonymous do so for their own good, and the government shouldn’t go after the journalists for not revealing where they got their information. Unless, of course, it’s a matter of national security, but a judge can determine that.

The government needs to have good reason to make journalists show their notes and reveal their sources. This is their work product, and nothing more. Journalists are not “co-conspirators,” as one Fox News reporter was labeled, but are ethically bound truth-seeking writers and conveyers of information.

As journalists, we pack light, meaning we usually have a notebook, pen, laptop or iPad, and perhaps a camera. Now journalists need to carry around a shield to protect them from the government. We need a federal shield law.

Lucky for us, one is already in the works — and will hopefully pass this time. (Similar bills were given the boot in 2010.)

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, known to the bigwigs as HR 1962/S. 987, was introduced last month in the House of Representatives. FFIA would ensure, at the federal level, that journalists can go about their jobs and sources can reveal information without being threatened with exposure and prosecution.

But the FFIA doesn’t give journalists a green card to report with impunity. Instead, it will provide consistence in the courts, and a judge will weigh whether a journalist would need to testify about confidential sources.

FFIA gives journalists a “qualified privilege,” if you will. After graduating and getting a poverty-level job, the most a journalist gets to look forward to is a plate of cold takeout and rewatching old episodes of “The Bachelor” on Hulu. Qualified privileges of any sort are sounding pretty good at this point.

The Signpost staff encourages everyone to contact their senators and representatives and ask their support for FFIA. This bill will not only protect journalists from “the man,” but will protect the public too. It protects the public’s right to know, the public’s right to hold the government accountable. Pass the federal shield law.