Free Flow

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, October 25, 2007

Words. We depend on them as much as they depend on us. Once merely tools invented to give tangible life to our thoughts, we have since joined them in a long, lazy dance of co-evolution. They have helped shape our art, science, culture, beliefs and, in many ways, our humanity. We have devoted ourselves to them in our books, laws and livelihoods. And today the freedom of words, one of our most precious and powerful of creations, is under attack.

Restrictions have always been put upon words and the ways we use them, but in recent years the nature of those restrictions has changed in this country. Journalists now face possible imprisonment for the way they use words—namely, if they refuse to name the confidential sources behind them. It is a practice that has not only put some of our best reporters behind bars, it has also silenced the flow of information.

Thankfully, on Tuesday, Oct. 16, Congress took a step toward abolishing that practice.

The House voted in an astonishing 398-21 in favor of the Free Flow of Information Act, a federal shield law that would protect journalists who refuse to reveal confidential sources. The vote is only a first step because the bill now has to make it through the Senate and then the president. The chance of the bill making it through the Senate is promising, with its members having already overwhelmingly passed a similar set of laws in the Judiciary Committee. The president, however, has promised to veto the bill, although the House has enough votes to override him.

Still, the bill is imperfect. Although it aims to protect journalists, it lists a number of dubious circumstances under which journalists would be forced to give testimony, such as in the case of someone who has “revealed a trade secret.”

Furthermore, the bill raises the issue of who is considered a journalist by the government. The Senate version asks to protect all those who are merely “engaged in journalism," while the House version only offers protection to those who use journalism for their “livelihood or for substantial financial gain.” Most bloggers don’t fall into that definition. A number of part-time freelance journalists might not, either. Are only “professional” journalists worth protecting? And, if so, how can we judge the professionalism of a journalist based off nothing more than financial interest?

The bill is by no means an ideal solution. But it’s the best we’ve got. And it’s one step closer to procuring freedom for one of our most valuable assets: our words.