The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Monday to turn down an appeal from a reporter facing jail time for not revealing his confidential source punctuates the essential need for a federal shield law.
On Monday the Court turned down the appeal of James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times who has refused to identify a confidential source used in his 2006 book, "State of War." According to The New York Times, prosecutors say they need Risen's testimony to prove that the source was Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official.
On its website, the Society of Professional Journalists notes that 49 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that protect news gatherers from revealing confidential information, but at the federal level there is no shield law.
"For too long, journalists have been prosecuted and incarcerated for refusing to hand over source names and information they have gathered while on the job," the website notes. "Many have lost countless dollars and resources fighting the battle. Others have lost days of their lives in jail."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also commented on Monday's ruling, as well as the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling that ordered Risen to comply with the subpoena to reveal his source.
"We are extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court declined this opportunity to uphold journalists' ability to protect confidential sources, which is an essential tool utilized by a free press in newsgathering for the public trust," Executive Director Bruce D. Brown said in a prepared statement. "The lower court's ruling sends an undeniable chill through current and future news sources who would want to come forward with information essential to the well-being of the community and the country.
"The Reporters Committee hopes that [Monday's] Court inaction will lead to a robust federal shield law and serve as a catalyst in the news media's continued efforts with the Department of Justice to craft strict, limited guidelines for federal subpoenas of reporters."
Efforts to pass a federal shield law have been ongoing for years. The latest attempt is H.R.1962, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, and S.987, which were introduced in May 2013.
The Society of Professional Journalists notes that, "While shield laws protect journalists, the key purpose is to protect sources' identities and their ability to get important information to the public via journalists. Without this protection, insiders are less likely to go to the press with information that needs to be told about corruption and abuse of power."
This reluctance is seen at all levels of government, and it is one of the reasons why states, including Maryland, have taken it upon themselves to enact shield laws. But as the Risen case illustrates, the same protections are needed for journalists and their sources at the federal level. Since the Supreme Court has not acted to protect journalists, Congress should take action and pass the Free Flow of Information Act.