Last week, we applauded Attorney General Merrick Garland for formalizing a rule in the Department of Justice that restricts the ability of federal investigators and prosecutors to get their hands on the notes of journalists.
We applaud the Attorney General’s action because the freedom of journalists to protect confidential sources has proven time and again a way to hold the government accountable for wrongdoing or malfeasance. As we took a long look at the published rule over the weekend, however, one aspect of it popped out at us. The DOJ rule protects “members of the news media” without giving that term any definition.
Does the new DOJ rule protect local citizen journalists like Priscilla Villarreal, aka “Lagordiloca,” who was arrested by Laredo police and slapped with the Orwellian charge of “misuse of official information”? Does the rule protect the political and speech rights of activist groups, from BLM to Project Veritas, who post news? Or does it only protect salaried employees of large media organizations?
We reiterate that the announcement of this rule, while heartening, is not enough. As we noted, it can be changed at any time. The fuzziness about DOJ’s thinking on who is and who is not a journalist is more reason for the Senate to pass the PRESS Act. This bill would prohibit the federal government from compelling journalists, and phone and internet companies, to disclose journalists’ notes, except in limited circumstances such as preventing terrorism or imminent violence.
The PRESS Act, which passed the House by voice vote on Sept. 19, defines covered journalist as “a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, investigates, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”
This bill follows a successful approach enshrined in the law in most states. With little debate and no time required, the U.S. Senate should show that we all agree on the need for a free and unfettered press.