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posted: 5/19/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Time to pass federal shield legislation

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We have used this space in the past to talk about the value of relationships between journalists and their confidential sources and the need for a federal law that would strengthen the protections for those relationships.

In fact, a few years ago, it looked like it was going to happen. The U.S. House easily passed the Free Flow of Information Act co-sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, with the support at the time of every member of the suburban delegation.

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There was a lot of reason to be optimistic. The Senate version of the bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a wide margin and appeared to be headed toward passage.

But despite that optimism, the measure failed because of national security concerns. Since then, if anything, federal shield legislation seems to have been losing ground, badly damaged by the WikiLeaks exposes of 2010.

Nobody in Congress wanted to pass legislation that would grant that kind of license, and, frankly, we don't blame them.

We all have a vital stake in national security, just as we all have an important stake in the First Amendment. Strong federal shield laws can be drafted that also protect the nation's national security interests.

All of this has come up again now because of the revelations of the government's unprecedented and widespread surveillance of Associated Press phone records a year ago.

Make no mistake. As we said in this space last week, the breadth of the government's spying is an outrage that should anger every citizen in the country. The scope was so wide that no government explanation for it is credible.

And think about the impact. What source, fearing possible reprisals, is going to come forward to expose wrongs in an atmosphere like that?

As to the national security justification? The idea that leaks had to be stopped that were jeopardizing American lives?

The Newspaper Association of America observed, "It is widely suspected that the investigation concerns a May 7, 2012, story by the AP about how the CIA thwarted a second attempted underwear bomb plot."

But it's hard to see the security risk in that report. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt pointed out, "We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed. Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled."

Amid the uproar, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York announced he will reintroduce a shield bill he has proposed, and Rep. Ted Poe of Texas has introduced a Free Flow of Information Act similar to the one that easily passed the House years ago.

It's time to make this happen. It's time to go beyond talking about a new federal shield law and to enact it. We hope everyone in the suburban delegation to Congress, as well as Illinois' two senators, gets on board.

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