Michigan Sunshine Project Update: The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (HR 2102) goes to a Floor Vote on Tuesday, October 16, 2007

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For more information on Project Sunshine, please contact: Catherine A. Gniewek at gniew1ca@cmich.edu or (734) 223-9645.

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (H.R. 2102) has advanced in the 110th Congress farther than any shield bill introduced to date. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will bring the House version of the bill, H.R. 2102, to the floor for a full House vote today. Currently, the bill has 71 co-sponsors, including 45 Democrats and 26 Republicans. 218 votes are required for the bill's passage in the House.

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (H.R. 2102) would establish a qualified federal privilege that protects journalists from identifying their sources from government investigators with some exceptions. Under H.R. 2102, journalists can be compelled to identify confidential sources only if the court finds it necessary to prevent "imminent and actual harm to national security" or "imminent death or significant bodily harm." Journalists also may be compelled to reveal a source's identity who has "disclosed trade secrets, health information or nonpublic personal information of any consumer in violation of current law."

Under H.R. 2102, online journalists for the first time would be afforded the same protection as their offline counterparts provided they are engaged in "gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public."

When asked about H.R. 2102, Catherine A. Gniewek, Michigan Sunshine chair and a faculty member of Central Michigan University stated, "The journalist's promise of confidentiality is often a key that opens the door to truth. Many of the biggest investigative stories of our time have been possible due to information provided by an unnamed witness. Unidentified sources were responsible for exposing the issues behind Watergate, Enron and the Pentagon Papers. Let's not forget the coverage of the war in Iraq, the proliferation of nuclear weapons or global warming."

Critics claim the protection of a federal shield law could undermine the credibility of the news through overuse of undisclosed sources. When asked about the possible impacts of the bill, Gniewek said, "Journalists should use unidentified sources only when necessary and be required to reveal to the public why the source's identity must remain confidential."

Today, 49 states (with the exception of Wyoming) have shield laws or court decisions that protect journalists, but a federal law has yet to pass. The last effort failed in 2005.

H.R. 2102 was introduced in May with high expectations for a bipartisan effort that has a companion bill in the Senate (S.B. 1267), backed by House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI). Other sponsors include Reps. Mike Pence (R-IN), Rick Boucher (D-VA), and SPJ member John Yarmuth (D-KY). Senate sponsors include Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO).

S.B. 1267 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month despite some questions on the definition of a journalist. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, Sen. John Cornwyn (R-TX). a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who spoke at the SPJ's annual conference right after the vote, asked for journalists' help in determining "exactly who is a journalist."

The Oct. 16 floor vote comes on the second day of National Freedom of Speech Week, a weeklong celebration of the rights, and challenges to those rights, of journalists and others under the First Amendment.

About Michigan Sunshine:
Catherine A. Gniewek was recently named Michigan Sunshine chair by the Society of Professional Journalists representing the state of Michigan on Freedom of Information and accessibility issues in local, state and national debates. Gniewek is a faculty member of Central Michigan University in the College of Communication and Fine Arts and president of MichiganToday.net, an online publication about Michigan.

For more information on Project Sunshine, please contact: Catherine A. Gniewek at gniew1ca@cmich.edu or (734) 223-9645.

For more information on the Society of Professional Journalists, please see
http://www.spj.org/sunshine-chairs.asp.

MichiganToday.net is all about Michigan. MichiganToday.net is located at: http://www.michigantoday.net.

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Catherine Gniewek
MichiganToday.net
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Catherine A. Gniewek