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Contempt order shows need for federal shield law

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
A shield bill has been stuck in the Senate for some time now, approved by the Judiciary Committee in October…

A shield bill has been stuck in the Senate for some time now, approved by the Judiciary Committee in October but stalled since then. But the time to get it passed is now, as a contempt ruling this morning in the Steven Hatfill Privacy Act case shows.

Two particularly disturbing items jump out of Judge Reggie Walton’s contempt order against Toni Locy this morning. In showing how serious he was taking this issue, Walton said, according to the AP:

"I don’t like to have to hold anyone in contempt," the judge added, but when it comes to cases where a person says his reputation was destroyed because of stories published about him, "the media has to be responsible."

This is, of course, the very definition of "blaming the messenger." The anthrax story was huge, even though it came on the heels of the bigger story of the Sept. 11 attacks. People had a right to know what their government was doing about it. The government wasn’t officially talking, but enterprising reporters found out what the government was up to, and reported — accurately and truthfully — that the FBI had termed Steven Hatfill a "person of interest" in the investigation. The media was simply the messenger.

Of even greater concern is Walton’s discussion about whether Gannett Co., Locy’s employer when she worked at USA Today, or anyone else can help her pay the fine. He hasn’t made up his mind yet, but seems to be leaning toward forbidding any contributions. Such a decision would seem particularly cruel, designed solely to bankrupt a reporter who is standing up for the rights of all members of the news media — that includes you, bloggers! — to serve as an independent watchdog on the government.