Guest Editorial: Shield law aids everyone

What do Watergate, the Enron scandal and the deplorable conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center all have in common?

Americans may never have known about any of them if it were not for the media’s use of confidential sources.

Or, put another way, unless individuals felt confident enough that their identities would be protected if they came forward with sensitive information.

Today, 49 states and the District of Columbia – either through state statute or court precedent – provide at least some qualified protection to reporters from being forced to identify these important individuals in state courts. New Hampshire is one of them.

Unfortunately, the federal government does not – at least not yet.

In May 2007, U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, introduced the Free Flow of Information Act (H.R. 2102), which is intended to set conditions on when the federal government can compel the disclosure of confidential sources in federal courts.

Under the bill, the privilege would not be absolute. Exceptions could include cases involving criminal conduct, the prevention of death, kidnapping or substantial physical injury, or the prevention of terrorist activity or harm to national security.

Five months later, the House of Representatives voted by a veto-proof margin of 398-21 to approve the measure. New Hampshire Democrats Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter voted with the majority.

At first, it appeared a similar bill would move just as quickly through the Senate.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced the Senate version of the bill (S. 2035) last September, and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 15-4 to give it a favorable recommendation one month later.

Then everything stopped, despite letters and pleas to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky from supporters to schedule a floor vote on the measure.

Last month, 42 state attorneys general – including New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte – signed a bipartisan letter to Reid and McConnell expressing their support for the bill and urging its passage in the Senate.

Perhaps that letter turned the trick. Because after eight months of inaction, Reid announced last week that he will bring the legislation to the Senate floor for a vote prior to the August recess, which is currently scheduled to begin Aug. 8.

Despite the overwhelming support of the House, the attorneys general and the two presumptive nominees of their parties for president – Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama – the bill faces stiff opposition from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bush administration, despite its exceptions.

That’s why it’s important for the Senate not only to approve the bill, but to do so by an overwhelming margin – and that means with the help of New Hampshire Sens. Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu, neither of whom is among the bill’s 16 co-sponsors.

In a perfect world, journalists would not have to rely on confidential sources in order to expose corruption in either the public or private sector. But as long as there are individuals who genuinely fear repercussions from their government, their employers or others, then journalists need to be able to assure them that their identities will be protected.

Unless you really don’t want to know about the next Watergate, Enron or Walter Reed Army Medical Center.