One of the things we are doing at the Citizen Media Law Project is keeping our eye on new legislation that might have an impact on non-traditional journalists.
Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed — for the first time ever — a federal shield bill by a vote of 398 to 21. This follows on the heels of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s passage
of a similar bill on October 4. The House version, however, makes a
critical change in the language regarding who is entitled to the bill’s
qualified protections by excluding those who do not receive
“substantial financial gain” for their journalistic activities.
This change significantly narrows the bill’s coverage and is plainly
aimed to exclude non-traditional journalists. But it doesn’t just
exclude those whom some in Congress derisively call “bloggers.” The new
definition would likely exclude many freelance journalists who must
rely on other work to supplement their incomes. Do we really want
judges to be deciding whether a journalist is earning enough money to
qualify for protection?
More to the point, is financial remuneration the criterion we
want to be using when we draw the line between those who are entitled
to engage in journalism under the protection of a federal shield law
and those who must venture forth unprotected? It seems to me the answer
is no. To limit the privilege only to journalists who receive
“substantial financial gain” misses the point of how media and
journalism are evolving. Most crucially, it misses the growing — and
essential — role of citizen media creators. They are the closest
analog since the nation’s founding to the Tom Paine-style pamphleteers
the First Amendment was designed, in part, to encourage.
Journalists — and more importantly, the public — desperately need a
federal shield law. But what we need is a federal shield law that
protects all acts of journalism regardless of whether they are done for
You can read a longer discussion of the House and Senate bills on our blog. We’ve also created a set of shield law resources that provide additional background on the subject and provide information on federal and state shield protections.