Fed Shield Law – The Good, The Bad, The Protected

The U.S. Congress is considering creating the Free Flow Information Act, a federal media shield law offering universal protection for news reporters — and bloggers — who conceal their sources. Currently, there are only thirty-five states with shield law protections, the details of which vary from state to state. Some apply to civil but not to criminal proceedings; others protect journalists from revealing confidential sources, but not other information relating to their reporting.

There is concern that a broader fed media shield could encourage the disclosure of trade secrets and confidential corporate information. One only need be reminded of the Apple employee who gave bloggers secret product information regarding Asteroid, a new audio interface for GarageBand. When bloggers published the design and marketing plan, Apple lost its competitive edge and had to go back to the drawing board. Apple subpoenaed the bloggers and their ISPs to identify the source of the leak. But, the state’s media shield insisted the rights of the media come first.

Undeniably, the protection of media sources is critical to freedom of the press. It is interminably linked to watchdog reporting, and indeed remains the founding principle of democratic thinking. Without it, we would not have known the depths of Enron’s financial scandals, or learned of the horrific events at Abu Ghraib, as sources would never have risked coming forward without guaranteed anonymity. Had Woodward and Bernstein been forced to reveal the identity of Deep Throat upon their first tip, Watergate would have been viewed historically as nothing more than a fraternity prank because the flow of information would have ceased.

But, surely some protections must also be in place to prevent unfair market practices and libel. Certainly, as freedom of the press has always stopped short of shouting “fire” in a public place, it should also offer protection against revealing corporate trade secrets and anonymously-sourced stock manipulation.

I will always support media who protect their sources and I hope our government does as well. Any reporter willing to serve jail time or incur fines to uphold the rights of the individual is undeniably a hero in my book. And, I am 100% in support of a federal shield law in order to better give voice to the voiceless. As our world gets smaller and smaller, we need a uniform Federal standard which can not only be upheld in the states, but can also transfer to overseas bureaus as well. However, in this day of business moving at the speed of information, we should also be careful not to open a Pandora’s box of anonymity that precludes protections for fair market advantage and proprietary product & property rights.

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