“A Shield Law Full of Holes is No Shield Law at All”
By Colleen Kiphart
A Q&A with blogger and First Amendment activist Josh Wolf
SPJ has been talking about a shield law for years. And during the 2008 election, it seemed the legislation was finally within reach. Barack Obama had advocated for a shield law and journalists held their breath. But not for too long. Two options are currently being developed in the House and Senate, neither of which satisfy those who are pushing for a law with more teeth. Few people can grasp the importance of this issue like Josh Wolf. On April 3, 2007, Wolf, a freelance blogger and videographer, was released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., after spending 226 days in prison for refusing to surrender the raw video footage he took at a 2005 G8 Summit protest in San Francisco. It was the longest that any journalist had been held for contempt related to refusal to surrender sources or unpublished materials. Earlier this week, Gen J committee member Colleen Kiphart caught up with Wolf to talk about the proposed shield law and what it means to democracy itself.
Gen J: Why is a shield law an important concept?
Wolf: The shield law in a general concept as a robust and comprehensive law is vital to a democracy and crucial to a free press having access to sources who might not want to be exposed to government, police, or other law interests.
Gen J: Do you think the public will support this bill, or will they view it as a law the only affects journalists?
Wolf: The notion that the bill only affects journalists is myopic. Journalism is the fabric of democracy, and anything that impacts journalism impacts democracy. And democracy is supposed to be everything we call our civilization.
Gen J: What are the three worst aspects of the proposed laws winding through the House and Senate?
Wolf: Just three? Well, off the top of my head: 1) The House’s definition of who is and who is not a journalist. 2) In the Senate’s version, the limitations on the protections of unpublished material 3) That would have to be the overly broad restrictions on what is protected in terms of the material, itself.
Gen J: Do you see the lack of protections to freelance bloggers in the House version having any affect on bloggers in the future?
Wolf: People are flying without a net right now. Passing a law to protect mainstream media that leaves out bloggers and students won’t change where they [bloggers] sit from their position. But, I can’t see it having any effect beyond furthering the divide between who is and isn’t a journalist, and, frankly, I had hoped we were beyond that by now.
Gen J: You said that since students and bloggers are currently already flying without a net the House’s proposed bill wouldn’t really change the way they practice journalism. Do you see the promise of protection altering mainstream journalism?
Wolf: That’s a good question. Hopefully the passage of a shield law would create a professional shift in which reporters become less fearful of government intimidation. I don’t know if that’s really true. Several news stations have a policy to destroy their raw video on a regular basis to avoid the very situation I found myself in. This would no longer be necessary if they were protected by a shield law. But it’s hard to know exactly how things would evolve in the industry after a shield law’s passage.
Gen J: The Senate’s proposed bill does not offer protection to unpublished materials. What are the long-term implications of this omission? How does this affect young journalists?
Wolf: By not protecting unpublished materials, then there is little beyond an Attorney General guideline to stop federal law enforcement from forcing journalists to act as an extension of federal law enforcement. In practice, I don’t see this becoming common — at least not under the current administration — but the sheer possibility alone is of great concern to me. Further, not including unpublished materials wouldn’t have helped me avoid my jailing, even if I had met the definition of journalist.
Gen J: What can young journalists do to raise awareness of the need for a comprehensive shield law?
Wolf: What journalists do best is telling stories and reporting on this issue may be the most effective approach. At the same time, the most likely thing to actually change the perspective of politicians is to call their offices and ask that they pass a robust, comprehensive shield law that doesn’t differentiate staff journalists from freelancers, and doesn’t disqualify journalism students and bloggers as a vital component to our free press. A shield law full of holes is no shield at all.
Learn more about Wolf at his website: http://joshwolf.net/blog/