An amendment is moving through the Senate Judiciary Committee that would essentially allow the government to determine who is a journalist for purposes of legal protection of sources. For purposes of protecting a source, a “journalist” under law would be anyone who:
- Works or worked for “an entity or service that disseminates news or information by means of newspaper; nonfiction book; wire service; news agency; news website, mobile application or other news or information service…news program; magazine or other periodical…or through television or radio broadcast…” These people would have to have the “primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information.” Opinion journalists might not be covered.
- Bloggers and citizen journalists – citizens who commit acts of journalists without working for such an outlet – would not be covered, unless it was determined that “at the inception of the process of gathering the news or information sought, had the primary intent to investigate issues or events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information.” In other words, the government – the Department of Justice – would now determine whether primary intent was news distribution or political concerns.
- Those explicitly excluded from protection include those “whose principal function, as demonstrated by the totality of such person or entity’s work, is to publish primary source documents that have been disclosed to such person or entity without authorization.” Glenn Greenwald, please contact your lawyer.
Who would decide who fell within these guidelines? A “judge of the United States” can “exercise discretion to avail the persons of the protections of this Act.” But in the first instance, the DOJ would have the discretion to determine whether a person is a “journalist” for purposes of the law. Instead of focusing on acts of journalism, the law would identify people by employment status.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said that it should not matter to citizen journalists if new protections extended to a special class of journalists created by the government, since the First Amendment does not grant any right to protect sources in the first place. “When we’re discussing the issue of adding a privilege, the issue of taking away someone’s First Amendment rights just isn’t engaged….All we’re doing is adding privilege to existing First Amendment rights, so there is, logically, zero First Amendment threat out of this,” said Whitehouse, ignoring the fact that a massive institutional advantage would be handed to approved government outlets, thereby perverting the entire system of a free press.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) launched into the proposed bill, which he said could “have the effect of excluding certain persons from enjoying the added First Amendment protections the bill would provide.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) agreed, stating, “Essentially as I understand this amendment, it protects what I would characterize as the ‘corporate media.’…But it leaves out citizen bloggers….I don’t think any protection should treat citizen bloggers who are meeting the underlying test of being primarily engaged in gathering news to report it I don’t think they should be excluded because they don’t happen to work for a media corporation.” He continued:
It strikes me that we are on dangerous territory if we are drawing distinctions that are treating some engaged in the process of reporting and journalism better than others. If we are advantaging those who happen to receive a paycheck from a corporate media entity over those who happen to be citizens….I for one would have deep troubles with legislation from Congress saying ‘we will grant special privileges if you happen to work for a corporate media interest’….It seems to me the First Amendment protects the activity, not the employment status of the person engaging in it.
Ben Shapiro is Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the New York Times bestseller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America” (Threshold Editions, January 8, 2013).