Decades after the passing of the Espionage Act in 1917, lawmakers are being forced to shake the dust off this old law and redefine the term “national security.” The WikiLeaks “document dump” in December 2010 opened a set of double doors to the national security world (and consequently to the inherent First Amendment freedoms at stake). WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange are seen as either heroes or hackers. The First Amendment could either be strengthened or weakened. And transparency could become a trend or a threat. The bottom line, though, is that journalism took a hit, and legislators are exploiting it.
For years, journalists have been fighting for a federal shield law, which would protect our rights not to disclose anonymous sources. In 2009, we came close when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a shield law called the Free Flow of Information Act. Not surprisingly, the act never got to the Senate, and died at the close of the 111th Congress.
Now, Senator Lieberman and other legislators are back with their own proposed SHIELD Act – the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination Act. It sounds like a shield law and it looks like “shield” law, but it is an entirely different animal. It “…expands the list of classified information considered to be criminal to publish, and it labels anyone who disseminates it as a ‘transnational threat,'” according to an article by Hagit Limor in Quill.
The SHIELD Act is not a shield for journalists or their sources. It is a shield for the government and a shield for secrecy. It shuts out freedom of information and throws a veil over transparency. And it is a direct response to the WikiLeaks scandal.
The double doors are open. But government leaders are already proposing to close and lock them. This is an opportunity for journalism to rush in and protect the First Amendment. If anything, we should be fighting harder for a shield law because we can be heard, because we will not give up on our source protections and because this is our chance.
“National security” has to be redefined. It could go either way. And the doors are open…
Emma Morehart, OUSPJ Treasurer