Department of Justice Policy
Announced August 10, 2017
On August 4, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that in order to combat “leaks” of highly classified materials threatening national security he has ordered a review of policies affecting “media subpoenas.” The Department of Justice policy currently in place regarding the obtaining of information from members of the news media seeks to strike a balance in protecting national security, ensuring public safety, promoting effective law enforcement and the fair administration of justice, and safeguarding the essential role of the free press in fostering government accountability and an open society. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
The problem with Attorney General Sessions’ announcement is that  there is a strong likelihood that the Justice Department provides little guidance on what constitutes w well – researched articles that seek to hold the government accountable for its policies and  that new policies will not be limited to only matters of national security, which would be a direct challenge to the constitutional right of freedom of the press. Forty – eight states and the District of Columbia currently have “shield laws” in place that protects a journalist from revealing their sources for confidential information. The rationale for this privilege is that many sources would be deterred from coming forward and sharing information with the press that is of great public interest. If Sessions and Trump get their way and revise DOJ’s media subpoena policy, they would be able to harass reporters – in any case, not just national security cases – into divulging their sources. This would also allow them to indirectly intimidate anonymous sources from coming forward with information that could be used to hold the Trump Administration accountable.
Also, the national security argument is questionable because of the actions of the President himself. In May 2017, President Trump revealed classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador. His actions were deemed reckless and nearly jeopardized relations with the ally who provided the intel. And again in August 2017, President Trump re-tweeted leaked information that was classified. If the President was so concerned about national security and leaks he would not have carelessly divulged information that did not need to be revealed. What is becoming clear is that leaks are not necessarily the problem. It is a President who is careless in his social media habits. This President has always been hostile to members of the press who disagree with him and with his rhetoric of “fake news.”
Empowering DOJ with a new and revised “media subpoena” policy might in the short term help to stop leaks but the long term damage is likely the suppression of a free and unhindered free press. It is better to stand up now to President Trump and AG Sessions and say no to their attempt to sacrifice First Amendment press freedoms that serve their efforts to try and suppress legitimate press criticisms of the Trump Administration. LEARN MORE
- Society of Professional Journalists – society that seeks to improve and protect journalists.
- Digital Media Law Project – webpage with links to state shield law statutes.
- Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press – non – profit group dedicated to helping journalists.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.