Wick Communications

Shields aren’t just for superheroes

In journalism on 29 May 2014 at 2:24 pm


Generally, I think of shields as being necessary for riot cops and Marvel superheroes. Not so much for journalists. But I may be wrong about that.

Last fall, there was momentum for passage of a federal shield law that would protect journalists from prosecution for failing to give up confidential sources. That momentum grew from the case of New York Times reporter James Risen, who faced jail time for failing to reveal sources in his reporting of the case of former CIA analyst Jeffrey Sterling who was being prosecuted for allegedly violating the Espionage Act. (Sterling, who was involved in sensitive weapons deals with Iranians, is accused of releasing national defense secrets after filing an discrimination action against the CIA. Juicy stuff!)

As USA Today’s Rem Rieder reports, the effort to shield journalists from prosecution has slowed to a crawl. Democrats say Republicans are holding up legislation even though more than 50 senators support a shield; Republicans say nanny, nanny boo-boo, I think.

I’ve always been on the fence about shield laws. Here’s why: As a general rule, I don’t think journalists should be afforded any special privileges. Keep in mind, a government that gives special shields or access or whatever, can also take it away. That is why I have always resisted official “press passes” from police agencies and the like. My press pass is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I shouldn’t have to wear a sheriff-issued press pass to attend the press conference or talk to a deputy at the scene of a crime. And don’t get me started on defining just who is a journalist.

Now, I realize that is me being a curmudgeon. I know that big events have to issue press passes and necessarily must differentiate between us and them. I just think we should make the point that we shouldn’t need one from the highway patrol or county government.

That said, at the state and federal level, things are beginning to feel different, even for me. We are entering a phase of American history where technology allows our government to track us like never before. Perhaps we need protections from the state at this point. If anyone asked me, I’d say that is a sad state of affairs. How do you feel about a federal shield law?


  1. Clay: At this point in time we need a shield law. The depth of accessibility that a fickle judge can establish (as in the Chevron case) of requiring release of any background information that can lead to a civil case, with no established criminal behavior, is one reason. The NSA syndrome where Americans accept as normal any level of private scrutiny is another reason. We need to presume that anything we write or say publicly or electronically can be turned over to a hostile party. True also of your notebooks but you can always eat those. Should a shield law be for established journalists?–I agree that is generally not a classification worth discussing anymore and maybe never was–we need protection for those investigating who need to protect sources. saludos Dick Kamp

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