The James Risen Case Cuts to the Heart of "Freedom of the Press"
If the Senate doesn’t screw things up, we might finally get the kind of media shield law that our democracy requires. Late last month, the Republican-controlled House of Representative passed the so-called Commerce, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2015 (H.R. 4660) by a margin of 321 to 87.
On its own, there’s nothing all that interesting about H.R. 4660. It’s your basic cut-and-dry appropriations bill that lays out how a handful of federal agencies, including the Justice Department, can spend their money. H.R. 4660 is the kind of bill that Congress passes all the time without much media attention.
But, believe it or not, there actually is something really interesting about H.R. 4660, something that could have a huge impact on how our government interacts with the only industry mentioned by name in the Constitution: the press. And that something is H.R. 4660’s Section 561, an amendment sponsored by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson.
Section 561 says: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to compel a journalist or reporter to testify about information or sources ... that he regards as confidential.” Basically what this means is that the government can’t force journalists to testify in court against their sources, even if their sources are on trial for leaking really top secret information that, in the government’s opinion, could threaten national security.
This is a huge deal. Right now, the government is making New York Times reporter James Risen testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA agent who Risen used as a source for his book on the CIA. Risen tried getting out of testifying against Sterling by appealing his case to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear his appeal, confirming a lower court decision that said that Risen couldn’t ignore a subpoena just because he was a journalist.
Risen’s case cuts right to the heart of the freedom of the press. When the government makes journalists testify against their sources, it basically makes it impossible for them to do their jobs. It scares other potential sources away from even thinking about talking to a reporter.
This isn’t just bad for the media; it’s bad for our democracy. We need the media to be the fourth estate, a functional fourth branch of government that keeps the other three in check. And when reporters can’t work with sources, especially government sources, because those sources are scared that they’ll testify against them, that makes it impossible for the press to cover what it needs to cover the most: government corruption, secret CIA programs, and other malfeasance by insiders.
We need a media shield law that protects acts of journalism as well as journalists themselves. That’s why Section 561 of the Commerce, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act is so crucial: It protects the most important act any journalist can ever do - work with sources to write a story.
The House of Representatives has spoken. It believes in protecting the freedom of the press. Soon we'll find out if the Senate does, too.