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Kansas Newspaper That Faced Illegal Police Raid Backs Reporter’s Shield Law

Above photo: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the PRESS Act is waiting for markup. Dick Durbin. Government image.

The PRESS Act has been waiting for markup by the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin.

A newspaper in Kansas that was targeted in an illegal police raid endorsed legislation in the United States Senate that would establish a national reporter’s shield law.

Eric Meyer, associate dean of the College of Media at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and publisher of the Marion County Record, declared, “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,” Meyer concluded.

In January, the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act, or the PRESS Act, unanimously passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a voice vote. But the Senate has taken no meaningful action to pass the bill.

The PRESS Act would “prohibit the federal government from compelling journalists and providers of telecommunications services to provide information identifying a source or any other record obtained or created by journalists in the course of their work,” according to a House Judiciary Committee report.

A coalition of attorneys and law professors and civil liberties and journalism organizations—including the Marion County Record—signed on to a letter [PDF] to Senator Dick Durbin, who is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (The letter was shared by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.)

“Journalists need protection from compelled disclosure of their sources and newsgathering materials, to ensure their ability to report on matters of public interest,” the letter contends. “When courts require journalists to reveal confidential sources’ identities or other information related to their reporting, such compulsion undermines their ability to gather the news and keep Americans informed.

As the coalition notes, “some federal circuits recognize a limited reporter’s privilege, while others, like the Seventh Circuit, recognize none. That means journalists and their sources are faced with great uncertainty regarding what law would apply in the event of an effort to unmask confidential sources.”

The letter additionally highlights the case of journalist Catherine Herridge, who was held in civil contempt by a federal judge in February because she would not reveal her sources. Herridge faces an $800 fine per day if she loses her appeal.

Because the legislation takes a broad view of “covered journalists,” not only would it offer protection to journalists like Herridge, who at the time was working for Fox News, but it also would protect any person who “regularly gathers and reports news” and prohibit the vast majority of “subpoenas of reporters’ phone and email records, a tactic used by Democratic and Republican administrations to attempt to uncover reporters’ sources.”

Durbin, a senator in the state of Illinois, is a supporter of the PRESS Act. He previously stated in 2023, “I’m joining my colleagues in reintroducing the PRESS Act to ensure that journalists have the necessary protections to speak with their sources and do their jobs effectively without undue government interference.”

Yet it remains unclear whether President Joe Biden’s administration will back a national reporter’s shield law or take the side of U.S. security agencies and prosecutors, who may view it as a hindrance.

Seth Stern, advocacy director for Freedom of the Press Foundation who lives in Illinois, said Durbin should markup the bill because “[j]ournalists and whistleblowers in Illinois remain vulnerable to invasive subpoenas demanding that reporters burn their sources.”

“Our federal appellate court is one of the few that doesn’t recognize a journalist-source privilege,” Stern continued. “That means everyone from prosecutors to private plaintiffs can haul reporters into federal court and demand to know who they’re talking to and what information they have.”

Eric Meyer’s 98-year-old mother Joan was the co-owner of the Marion County Record and had worked at the newspaper for more than a half century. But after the police raided her home and the newspaper’s office and seized her computer and router, Joan was so traumatized that she died the day after the raid.

The raid effectively shut down the newspaper for a period of time, and it was an act of retaliation brought on by a local restaurant owner after a “confidential source” contacted the newspaper with “evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license.”

This type of abusive act is exactly what the PRESS Act would strongly discourage and why it is crucial for U.S. senators to stand up and pass a national reporter’s shield law.

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