In response to the acknowledged abuses of his own Justice Department, President Obama has urged Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to reintroduce legislation for a "journalist shield law." And in typical Washington fashion, the proposed act would do nothing to prevent the abuses that supposedly make the law so necessary.
We saw a similar response to the horrible Connecticut school shootings last December -- a raft of laws that wouldn't have prevented the tragedy in the first place. It seems that whenever government fails to do what it is supposed to do with the laws already on the books, the answer is to give the government even more power.
Ah, but proponents of journalist shield laws argue that such regulations actually limit the power of government by protecting the First Amendment rights of the press. But that begs the question. A journalist shield law must define who is a journalist and who isn't.
On May 26, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on "Fox News Sunday" that the proposed shield law "still leaves an unanswered question. ... What is a journalist today, 2013? We know it's someone who works for Fox or AP, but does it include a blogger? Does it include someone who's tweeting? Are these people journalists and entitled to constitutional protection?"
Part of the problem stems from Durbin's apparent suggestion that the First Amendment protects only a free press. It also protects free speech, free assembly, freedom of worship and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. We all have these rights. The Washington Post's Bob Woodward has no more rights than my dentist.
And this is what is wrong with the idea of a federal shield law. One proposed version of the law says a "covered person" is someone who "for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in journalism." In other words, a journalist is a professional. So, the government gets to decide who's a "real" journalist. That's a horrifying expansion in government authority.
Worse, many judges won't even go that far. For instance, an Illinois judge ruled last year that the popular website TechnoBuffalo didn't qualify for the same protections the state confers to "real" journalists. Cook County (Ill.) Circuit Judge Michael Panter said, "The content on TechnoBuffalo's website may inform viewers how to use certain devices or offer sneak peeks of upcoming technology, but that does not qualify the website as a 'news medium' or its bloggers as 'reporters.'"
So when this newspaper informs its readers about new gadgets or gives sneak peeks at upcoming technologies, that is journalism. But when a moneymaking website does the same thing, not so much.