Welcome to the website of the Digital Media Law Project. The DMLP was a project of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society from 2007 to 2014. Due to popular demand the Berkman Klein Center is keeping the website online, but please note that the website and its contents are no longer being updated. Please check any information you find here for accuracy and completeness.
We've been following the subpoena issued to Kathleen Seidel in the Citizen Media Law Project's Legal Threats Database, but thought it was time to throw our support behind Seidel and post about this egregious attempt to chill online speech.
This is the sixth in a series of posts calling attention to some of the topics covered in the Citizen Media Legal Guide we began publishing in January. This past month, we rolled out the sections on Newsgathering and Privacy, which address the legal and practical
issues you may encounter as you gather documents, take photographs or
video, and collect other information.
Earlier this week, the Citizen Media Law Project joined 28 of the country's leading news organizations, press associations, and nonprofits dedicated to preserving free speech rights in filing a brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit opposing the contempt citation issued against Toni Locy, a former reporter for USA Today.
This is the first in a series of posts calling attention to some of the topics covered in the recently launched Citizen Media Law Project Legal Guide. The first topic we'll take up is choosing a business form for online publishing activities. There is increasing awareness that, especially if you publish content in collaboration with others, it may not be smart to simply leave the relationship "natural" or informal.
Eric Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University School of Law, has an article entitled "Reconstructing Journalists' Privilege" coming out in the Cardozo Law Review. The article is part of a symposium issue that includes pieces by an impressive list of scholars, including Anthony Lewis, Max
Frankel, Victor Kovner, Joel Gora, and Rodney Smolla.
Welcome to the first episode of the Citizen Media Law Podcast, providing practical knowledge and tools for citizen journalists. This week, David Ardia responds to the federal shield bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, Colin Rhinesmith talks about legal threats to co-bloggers, and Sam Bayard reflects on the Phoenix New Times arrests.
Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed -- for the first time ever -- a federal shield bill by a vote of 398 to 21. This follows on the heels of the Senate Judiciary Committee's passage of a similar bill on October 4. The House version, however, makes a critical change in the language regarding who is entitled to the bill's qualified protections by excluding those who do not receive "substantial financial gain" for their activities.
Under the House version, H.R. 2102, a "covered person" is defined as
a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person.
I've highlighted the new language in the quote above, which came about as the result of a last minute amendment by Representatives Boucher and Pence, two cosponsors of the original bill that did not include this ill-conceived requirement. In contrast, the original version of the House bill extended its coverage to any person "engaged in journalism," including "a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person."
This change significantly narrows the bill's coverage and is plainly aimed to exclude non-traditional journalists. But it doesn't just exclude those whom some in Congress derisively call "bloggers." The new definition would likely exclude many freelance journalists who must rely on other work to supplement their incomes. Do we really want judges to be deciding whether a journalist is earning enough money to qualify for protection?
More to the point, is financial remuneration the criterion we want to be using when we draw the line between those who are entitled to engage in journalism under the protection of a federal shield law and those who must venture forth unprotected? It seems to me the answer is no. To limit the privilege only to journalists who receive "substantial financial gain" misses the point of how media and journalism are evolving. Most crucially, it misses the growing -- and essential -- role of citizen media creators. They are the closest analog since the nation's founding to the Tom Paine-style pamphleteers the First Amendment was designed, in part, to encourage.
The United States Senate Judiciary Committee voted today to endorse a bill that would give journalists a qualified privilege from having to testify in court about their confidential sources and to disclose their news gathering materials. In a 15-2 vote, the committee sent the legislation, S. 2035, to the full Senate, where it is expected to face stiff opposition from Republican senators and the Bush administration. Presiding over the committee session, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) remarked:
The U.S. House of Representatives has taken an important step forward on the federal shield bill (H.R.2102), which we've discussed in greater detail before. The proposed legislation would protect those "engaging in journalism" from having to testify about or produce documents relating to their work, and from revealing their anonymous sources, except under specified circumstances. Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of the bill after two hours of debate, sending it to the House floor for consideration.
The amended bill is not currently available online, but reports (here, here and here) indicate that the new version extends protection to bloggers as long as they derive "financial gain or livelihood" from their journalistic activity. Some in Washington are unhappy because this definition of journalistic activity is too broad, complaining that the "financial gain or livelihood" standard opens the door to anyone whose blog or websites raises even a small amount of revenue through ads. Conversely, some online sources are trumpeting the amended version as a victory for bloggers, with headlines like "House panel approves legal shield for bloggers" and "US law to protect bloggers."
Both sides miss the (fairly) obvious point that the the recent revision narrowed the scope of journalistic activity protected by the law. Don't get me wrong. The revised legislation seems like a good start, and the "financial gain or livelihood" standard may well be broad enough to drive a truck through, providing plenty of room for enterprising bloggers. But the revised bill does potentially (and arbitrarily) exclude those citizen journalists who choose not to have ads or other marketing tools on their sites. We'll reserve judgment for now, monitor the bill closely, and follow up when a copy of the revised bill is available.
Yesterday our very own Mary-Rose Papandrea, a professor at Boston College Law School, testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary at the Massachusetts State House regarding a proposed shield law. For most of the hearing, the questions focused on the scope of the privilege (the bill proposes an absolute privilege for the identity of sources and a qualified privilege for newsgathering materials) and not on who would be covered under the privilege.
However, near the end of the hearing, Senator Robert Creedon expressed concern about extending the privilege to bloggers, describing them as "loose cannons." Papandrea, together with Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, responded that the term "bloggers" is ill-defined and includes many journalists from the mainstream media. Given that it would be unwise to place internet communications outside the scope of any shield law, Papandrea and Dalglish argued that the better answer would be to define those covered under the law by their function - i.e., whether they are disseminating information to the general public. Papandrea also pointed out that the proposed shield law would not immunize bloggers - or anyone else - from libel suits, which appeared to be Senator Creedon's primary concern.
You can track the status of the Massachusetts "Free Flow of Information Act" at OpenMass.gov.
UPDATE: Robert Ambrogi has posted a detailed report on what happened at the hearing.
We are looking for contributing authors with expertise in media law, intellectual property, First Amendment, and other related fields to join us as guest bloggers. If you are interested, please contact us for more details.