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I was reading through this months Quill, the official magazine of the Society of ED-AH217A_GRANN_20080314204025Professional Journalists, and happened upon what looked like a small-time story.

It was about the Federal Shield Law and how it provides protection for journalists and their sources. It’s becoming a real hot-button issue.

Here’s what the shield law actually is (from http://www.spj.org/shieldlaw.asp):

A shield law provides statutory protection for the “reporters’ privilege” — legal rules which protect journalists against the government requiring them to reveal confidential sources or other information. Sometimes an overzealous prosecutor or law enforcement agency will subpoena a reporter’s notes or the identity of a source to aid an investigation or prosecution. A shield law would allow leakers and sources to feel safe approaching journalists to expose wrongdoing in society, similar to providing priests and psychiatrists the ability to provide some confidentiality to conversations, without concerns that a judge would require their identities or the information to be turned over to the federal government unless under very limited circumstances. The District of Columbia and 49 states have some level of protections from local and state agencies. No statutory protection exists at the federal level.

shield-lawThis is a great example of the democratic process at work, right? Well, according to Lynn Walsh of WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida, there is a bit of a slippery slope attached to it.

The issue is “what makes a journalist a journalist?”

SPJ President David Cuillier writes that “this is a difficult question. Once a “journalist” is defined then before long the government might start raising the idea of licensing journalists, which can lead to a form of censorship that is found in other countries.”

This presents us with several problems. What about freelancers? What about citizens who are stringers for their local paper? What about serious bloggers who do real journalism? Where does the protection of the Federal Shield Law begin and where does it end?

The answer to these questions is not yet clear. Until they are clarified, make sure that you’re fighting your corner. Contact your Senators. There’s a handy tool to do so on the SPJ website at http://www.spj.org/shieldlaw.asp