With the birth of our nation came a government that was designed to be open and transparent to the people it served and one that would be held accountable for its actions. America's Founding Fathers established a system of checks and balances to ensure that one branch of government could not unilaterally impose its will on the others, aggressively overstep its authority or infringe upon the rights of the citizenry.
However, an often-overlooked element of that system is the role played by the press, and the people it serves. The First Amendment grants active citizens and vocal journalists the power to expose corruption and misbehavior committed by those elected or appointed to office. They serve as protectors of our democracy and work to make up for our system's failings where they exist.
The Watergate scandal epitomized the value of a free press, and the need to protect the relationship between journalists and confidential sources. The public has long valued this relationship as vital to an open and free media.
Unfortunately, the court record has been more mixed. In an important decision, Branzburg v. Hayes, the Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that the journalist-source relationship is not protected under the Constitution. That ruling has allowed journalists to be forced to testify before grand juries about their sources. In response, individual states nationwide have enacted their own journalist "shield laws" to guarantee that a member of the press can continue to maintain his or her anonymous sources without fear of prosecution.
Recent federal cases have again challenged the critically important relationship between journalists and sources. Are we willing to sacrifice a free, independent press by allowing law enforcement and government attorneys to turn journalists into witnesses on a whim?
Think of the scandals journalists have revealed just in the last few years: the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine prisons across Eastern Europe; Jack Abramoff trading dinners for political favors from lawmakers; our veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan to dilapidated facilities at Walter Reed Medical Center. Confidential sources made these reports possible. Would we rather be unaware of them because shield laws don't exist, and our reporters are too afraid of prosecution to do their jobs?
Unless Congress passes a comprehensive shield law that will guarantee the rights of journalists to speak with anonymous sources, the freedom of the press will be undermined along with the public good it has the power to defend. Any such bill must, of course, take into account the legitimate needs of our government. But should we compromise press freedom, we will deny our citizens their right to be informed about their government, and retreat from the true nature of the political system that made our country unique.
Louise Slaughter represents the 28th District in Congress, including parts of Buffalo and Niagara County. She is chairwoman of the Rules Committee.