As journalists, we try not to wade into political waters beyond observing and reporting. However, when we are talking about safeguarding journalism and protecting journalists from governmental interference, we must speak while we can.

St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists has chosen to co-sign the letter coordinated among more than 120 First Amendment, journalism and civil liberties organizations urging the Senate to take action on the PRESS Act. The need for a federal shield law to protect journalists from being compelled to testify against their own sources has been a constant discussion for all the decades I’ve been involved in SPJ.

What few people seem to realize is that this law is as much about protecting the average citizen as it is journalists. Why should prosecutors and government investigators bother to get probable cause and meet the requirements of a search warrant if they can just follow a reporter and subpoena her notes? Many states already recognize that end run around the Fourth Amendment. Illinois, for example, has had a solid shield law since 1982. Missouri does not. 

This is not a hypothetical discussion. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press maintains a database of historical cases, but just this February, a journalist was held in contempt for refusing to reveal a source, and the judge specifically cited the lack of a federal shield law in their ruling. In an era where journalists are increasingly being arrested and their materials confiscated simply for pointing a camera in the direction of a police officer, further legal protections for journalists are absolutely necessary. This is also a bipartisan issue: Both Republican and Democratic leaders have attempted subpoenas of journalists’ emails and phone records, and conversely, the law is supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle. The PRESS Act also protects freelance journalists, which is essential in an era where more and more journalists are working independently of a traditional newsroom.

It was my decision to sign us onto the letter, with the support of the chapter board. Whether you agree with me or not, I hope you will join in the discussion, and if so moved, take that rare step to speak up in the public sphere.

If we do not advocate for our own profession, who will?

Elizabeth Donald

President, St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists