Across America, from small towns to Washington, D.C., officials are misusing their authority to punish journalists.
In April, Protect The 1st reported that on at least two occasions, agents at ICE used a legal tool meant to aid in criminal investigations to pressure news organizations into revealing information about their sources.
In May, we reported that the FBI raided the home of a journalist, seizing his computer, hard drives, and cellphone, after he published embarrassing outtakes of a Fox News interview – which had already been posted online.
In August, Protect The 1st reported on the death of an elderly publisher in rural Kansas shortly after local police raided her home.
In November, we reported on an Alabama district attorney who arrested a publisher and a reporter for reporting on leaks from a grand jury about the mishandling of Covid funds.
Also this month we reported on the “ticketing” of a local journalist by Calumet City, Illinois, for having the temerity to send 14 emails over a nine-day period to city officials seeking comment on local flooding.
The First Amendment is clear, but the trend against it continues in the wrong direction, with such incidents piling up recently. The question is: why? We believe these clumsy attempts to punish the press can only be the result of the poor civics education of these officials in their youth. It also reflects an increasing appetite by politicians of all stripes to weaponize the law.
There is, fortunately, a bulwark against such local abuses. Forty-nine states have passed press shield laws that protect journalists and their sources. Yet Congress has not enacted a national shield law to protect reporters from federal prosecutors and courts. The Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying (PRESS) Act would limit the ability of prosecutors to expose the sources and notes of journalists in federal court. The PRESS Act passed through the House Judiciary Committee to the full House by a unanimous 23-0 vote in July.
The PRESS Act would have made a difference in the case of CBS News senior correspondent Catherine Herridge who, earlier this year, was ordered by a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to reveal the identity of a confidential source or sources she used for a series of 2017 stories published while she worked at Fox News. Her stories covered Chinese-American scientist Yanping Chen, subject of a federal counterintelligence probe. Chen subpoenaed Herridge and Fox News, with the hope of unmasking the source(s) for the stories. Herridge has since refused to reveal her source(s), and Chen’s lawyers are asking the judge to hold the journalist in contempt of court.
The Herridge case is all the more reason for a federal shield law in the form of the PRESS Act. No federal legislation, however, can change the dysfunctional, constitutionally illiterate, and illegal acts by government officials against reporters. That is not a matter of law, but of culture and education. Press freedom is strong only when people and the powers that be understand it and respect it.