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Editorial: America needs the shield law

The U.S. Senate could vote as early as Monday on the Free Flow of Information Act, also known as the reporters shield legislation.

How Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin vote could be critical, because President Bush has threatened a veto. We urge them all to vote "yes" and ensure a veto override.

The act has the endorsement of national journalism organizations across the country, including the Associated Press Managing Editors Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. No surprise, your local newspaper supports the act, too.

What may surprise you is that 42 of the nation's 50 state attorneys general support the act. John McCain and Barack Obama both back the act.

You also may not know that the U.S. House approved the measure 398-21 -- a veto-proof margin -- last year.

The Free Flow of Information Act would require federal courts to recognize the right of reporters to protect confidential sources, a privilege already recognized in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

So why the need for a federal law?

While only Wyoming doesn't offer reporters and sources some protection, whether through actual legislation or case law, these laws vary considerably. Each state shield law has served a purpose, but society has evolved to the point that a federal law makes the most sense.

Many stories cross state borders. Thanks to the Internet, news stories no longer are limited to a single community, state or even region. They hit the World Wide Web and transcend geography.

We see little sense in having the reporter privilege/confidentiality issue resolved state by state.

There's also the simple fact that state shield laws offer no protection when a reporter is called before a federal grand jury or federal court.

R-E reporter Mike Longaecker appeared last month in Dan Hemmah v. the City of Red Wing. While Longaecker wasn't asked to reveal any sources, the subpoena demanding his presence brought home how important a federal shield law is for even the smallest news operation and the community it covers.

Journalists who refuse to betray their sources face imprisonment and fines designed to cause their personal bankruptcy.

Those people who worry that journalists might protect terrorists and criminals note that this legislation addresses these dangers. The act carries a specific exception for anything that a court determines represents an actual, imminent danger to national security or public safety.

We also remind citizens that the Free Flow of Information isn't just about journalists; it's about their sources, those citizens, whistle-blowers and average folks who feel compelled to fight wrongs at potentially great risk to themselves. As long as there are individuals who fear repercussions for telling the truth -- losing a job, a spouse or a life -- journalists will need to protect their identity.

What it boils down to is this: The Free Flow of Information Act is exactly what its name says. It's about protecting those people who have information critical to exposing injustice and corruption and making this a better, stronger nation.