Free Press Pushes the Justice Department to Respect Journalists' Rights

In June, before the National Security Agency surveillance story broke, everyone was talking about the Justice Department’s secret collection of phone records from Associated Press journalists and editors — and the Department’s classification of one Fox News journalist as an accomplice in a leak that he had reported on.

While the nation has turned its attention to the NSA, journalists and press freedom groups have continued to work to hold the Justice Department accountable for trampling the press’ rights. And it’s beginning to pay off.

President Obama ordered a review of the Justice Department’s actions and Attorney General Eric Holder hosted a series of semi-off-the-record meetings with newsrooms and press freedom groups. At the meetings, Holder invited concrete recommendations on how to revise the DoJ’s guidelines for dealing with the press.

There seems to be real movement in the DoJ and an acknowledgement that critical mistakes were made. How the Justice Department rules are revised could have huge implications for who is protected and who is not.

On Thursday, Free Press submitted recommendations to the Justice Department (read the full letter here). We encouraged the DoJ to ensure protections for the varied range of people engaged in all types of journalism. Other parts of the Justice Department, specifically the Civil Rights Division, have taken a broad view of journalism when asserting everyone’s First Amendment right to record.

This approach needs to be folded into the Department’s general guidelines regarding treatment of the press. The DoJ needs to consider the essential role independent and citizen journalists play, and should extend protections to them as well.

We also endorsed recommendations submitted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. These include a proposal for yearly public disclosure of information about the DoJ’s subpoenas of journalists and news organizations, and annual meetings with the attorney general to review the effectiveness of the Department’s guidelines. We also argued that these meetings should be open not just to journalists, but to public interest, open government and civil liberties groups.

We believe it’s not OK to hold meetings behind closed doors in Washington. We encouraged the Justice Department to create a more open process that provides opportunities for public hearings and broader input. A more public process would ensure that the agency receives feedback from a range of stakeholders — which is essential in an era in which so many people participate in newsgathering and media making.

As the attacks on Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald show, journalists often get caught in the crossfire in the government’s war on leaks. We are at a pivotal moment in this debate as the media and technology landscape continues to evolve. As the Justice Department rewrites the rules we must take the necessary steps to protect journalism in all its forms.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good