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.