U.S. Senate can protect our democracy by passing the PRESS Act

The First Amendment, passed just three years after the Constitution was adopted, guaranteed four rights so central to the notion of what it meant to be a U.S. citizen that several states refused to ratify the Constitution unless it was added. Among those rights was freedom of the press. 

Fresh from the hard-won battle for independence in which newspapers had played a crucial role, those proto-Americans had a bone-deep understanding that democracy cannot survive without a free press that keeps its citizens informed about the world around them.

But that understanding is fading, thanks in part to the politicians who have spent decades demonizing the press. That’s why now, maybe more than ever, journalists and their readers need Congress to pass the PRESS Act (S. 2074/HR 4250). 

The more we treat journalists like criminals for doing their jobs, jailing them for refusing to reveal their sources or spying on them to find out what those sources are saying, the harder it is for them to tell us the sometimes hard truths we need to know.

Without anonymous sources, we would never have gotten many stories that contained information that was crucial for voters to know. The most famous is probably Watergate, but there are plenty of examples in Southern Arizona too. 

Covering vital topics like immigration and the border often requires journalists to spend weeks finding and cultivating wary sources, and promising those sources anonymity so they feel free to speak. When reporters are forced to break that promise and reveal a source’s identity, they lose much more than one source of vital information. They also lose their ability to interview more anonymous sources in the future. People who can talk only under the protection of anonymity will never trust reporters who can be forced by the state to reveal their sources.

The PRESS Act (the name stands for Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act) would accomplish two important things. 

First, it would make it illegal for the government to force journalists to reveal their sources, notes, or other materials related to their reporting. Second, it would bar the government from spying on reporters’ phone records or internet search histories if they refuse to comply with such requests. It also includes exceptions to allow for situations in which a journalist possesses information needed to prevent terrorism or imminent violence, as explained in this FAQ from the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Almost all states, and Washington DC, have laws that shield journalists to some extent from being forced to hand over their files for use in criminal prosecutions or private lawsuits, but these laws don’t apply to federal agencies or courts and they vary in strength. 

And so, despite these laws, many reporters have been fined or even jailed for protecting their sources. 

In 2006 Josh Wolf, a freelance video blogger in San Francisco, went to jail for more than a month for refusing to turn over a tape that federal officials said showed protesters damaging a police car. A year earlier, Judith Miller of the New York Times was jailed for nearly three months for refusing to reveal her sources in an investigation into the leak of a CIA operative’s name by White House officials. And today, Catherine Herridge is fighting an $800-a-day contempt of court ruling arising from work she did at Fox News. 

Even when journalists win such efforts, it takes time and money that not everyone can afford.

As those examples demonstrate, no one political party or ideology has a monopoly on trying to force reporters to reveal sources. 

“Federal law enforcement officials improperly acquired reporters’ phone records on numerous occasions since 2004, under both Democratic and Republican administrations,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Perhaps that’s why the PRESS Act has always had bipartisan support.

The strongest federal shield law ever proposed, the PRESS Act would strengthen existing state-level protections and standardize them nationwide. It has been around for decades-Arizona’s own John McCain came out in support of it in 2008 — but it has never managed to pass both houses of Congress. The House passed the PRESS Act in its last session and again this January, both times with strong bipartisan support, but the Senate Judiciary Committee has done nothing to introduce it in the Senate. 

The Senate’s session will be shortened due to the presidential election, so our senators need to hear from us now, before time runs out, to know that we care about protecting the press.

Eric Meyer, publisher of the Marion County Record and former associate dean of the College of Media at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, explained his support of the act to the FPF as follows: “As last summer’s raid on the Marion County Record proved, freedom of expression faces unprecedented challenges from unscrupulous people willing to weaponize the justice system to bully and retaliate against those attempting to report truth. Existing remedies might be fine for huge media organizations, but community journalists and people like the students I used to teach at the University of Illinois shouldn’t have their rights be dependent on whether they can afford to hire massive legal teams. Clear protections like those in the PRESS Act would block future attempts to trample on the First Amendment in ways that once were unfathomable to all who support democracy.”

You can help protect our press and our democracy. Contact your U.S. Senators and urge them to sign onto the PRESS Act as cosponsors, and ask Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin to bring it up for a vote.