Law to identify definition of journalist

A bill proposed in the Maryland House of Representatives is putting the spotlight on the issue of whether collegiate journalists should be granted shield law protection to prevent them from having to reveal confidential sources.

The shield law allows reporters the right to refuse to reveal their sources gathered while working on a news story.

According to the Student Law Press Center, the Maryland bill is the response to an attempt by an attorney in Illinois to subpoena the syllabus, grades, notes, e-mails, expense receipts and other documents from a class at Northwestern University.

The class is part of the Medill Innocence Project, in which students use investigative reporting to research old cases to look for signs that people were wrongfully convicted of crimes.

The bill’s sponsor, Sandy Rosenberg, hopes that other states will pass similar laws.

However, last summer Texas passed the Free Flow of Information Act (FFIA) — its version of a shield law.

The Austin-American Statesman reported that the Act defines a journalist as someone who gathers and disseminates information for “a substantial portion” of their livelihood or “for substantial financial gain.” Unpaid college journalists are therefore not protected.

Michael Tate Barkley, assistant professor and practicing attorney at Bain & Barkley, said the state should broaden its definition of “journalist.”

“College journalists participate in journalism and they’re serving their identified role under the First Amendment just like a newspaper or broadcast news magazine is,” Barkley said.  “In my mind, I don’t make the distinction — just because somebody’s a student doesn’t mean they’re not practicing journalism.”

But with the FFIA being passed so recently, Barkley said, the political incentive to pass additional legislation probably no longer exists.

Like in Texas, a proposed federal shield law may also exclude collegiate journalists.

The bill, also called the Free Flow of Information Act, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in December of last year. Texas Sen. John Cornyn is a member of this group.

Although an outspoken supporter of open government, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Cornyn had been one of several committee members with concerns that shielding too many people, such as bloggers and citizen journalists, could be dangerous to national security.

Cornyn’s offices did not respond to numerous attempts for comment. The bill is awaiting a vote by the U.S. Senate.

The ambiguity of the state of media protection has left many journalists in an awkward situation. They could be held in contempt of court and jailed for refusing to turn over confidential information, or sued by their sources for divulging information.

The Daily Cougar’s managing editor Matthew Keever has a unique perspective on the issue since he is a college journalist making “less than minimum wage” and an unpaid intern at a professional publication.

Keever said he agrees with Barkley that, in the interests of democracy, true journalists need to be able to report unhindered.

“The definition of a journalist is crucial to the legislation, but at the same time, we really need to be protecting reporters and not government officials,” Keever said.  “If we want to ensure a free society, it is important that journalists are not intimidated by their government.

“It should be the other way around.”

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