Utah Senator Mike Lee was rightfully suspicious of government surveillance and should support this bill.
The unanimous passage of the Protect Reporters from Explosive State Spying (PRESS) bill by the US House of Representatives in September went largely unnoticed. It shouldn’t have been.
The law would prevent government seizure of recordings from journalists or their phone and internet providers, and would protect journalists from being forced to disclose news sources in all exceptional circumstances. It is one of the broadest First Amendment protections proposed by Congress in modern times.
The protection afforded by the law is essential as a free press is not truly free when the government can seize newsrooms to further their whims. The Utah Supreme Court recognized this in 2008, when it issued some of the country’s toughest restrictions on the forced disclosure of reporters’ sources.
Now Utah’s elected officials — particularly Senator Mike Lee — have an opportunity to similarly push constitutional liberties at the federal level. Lee sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Sen. Durbin can “hotline” the bill so it can move through committee without a penalty and get a Senate vote before Congress adjourns in January. However, the success of this strategy likely depends on a Republican senator co-sponsoring the bill.
Lee, a proponent of limited government who has long opposed excessive government oversight, should be that senator.
The PRESSE Act is not partisan legislation. It passed the House of Representatives on a bipartisan basis, and Republicans from Mike Pence to Lindsey Graham have historically been strong advocates of similar “Shield” legislation.
Every recent presidential administration, whether Democrat or Republican, has had its fair share of scandals involving improper interference in Fourth Estate affairs. State laws in Utah and elsewhere, while valuable, do not bind federal prosecutors and investigators. Nor does it prevent the government from obtaining reporter recordings directly from phone companies, email providers, and other third parties to identify their sources. The PRESS Act does both.
Like many Republicans, Lee is critical of the media establishment, but the PRESS Act’s protections are not limited to mainstream media. They cover anyone who collects and publishes news, regardless of political leanings, so the government cannot deny its opponents the protections of the law.
The law is particularly important for alternative outlets without armies of lawyers. It gives breathing room for upstarts and disruptors to grow unhindered by government bullying. Outlets from the New York Times to Project Veritas have been targeted by federal investigators in recent years. Utahns may have different opinions about which media to trust, but we all rely on some media.
From the journalists’ perspective, countering state subpoenas and seizures takes time that is better spent gathering important news. Journalists are not government employees and should not be asked to stop their important work at the request of federal investigators.
But government interference is just as intimidating, if not more so, than it is for journalists. There’s no telling how many stories weren’t told — or weren’t told as well as they should have been — because someone with important information was afraid to come forward without sufficient assurances the government wouldn’t debunk them.
Politicians on all sides have spent a great deal of time complaining about the media in recent years. This is an opportunity to improve it meaningfully. We urge Sen. Lee and all Utah residents to support this historic legislation.
seth star is the Advocacy Director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the rights of journalists and whistleblowers. Before joining FPF, he worked as a First Amendment attorney and as a reporter and editor.