Published February 1973 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd Newsman-How Much Protection Do They Need? In recent months, a number of newsmen have been ordered to reveal the sources of their stories, and a few of those who refused have been sent to jail. The jailings, predictably, have sent shock waves through the communications industry, and have produced calls for legislation that would protect journalists from having to reveal their sources. But the question arises: How much protection reporters need? Certainly, a newsman should not have to surrender his notes and reveal his sources to every agency, commission, or other group that is looking into the mere possibility of a crime's having been committed. He should not be made to do the investigative work that the government ought to be doing; nor should he be made a party to a "fishing expedition" of the type that marked the McCarthy era. Yet, just as certainly, a newsman, simply because of his profession, should not be given special treatment. He has the same responsibilities that every citizen has; and, if he has information on a specific crime, or if his sources themselves are involved in violations of the law, then that information should be turned over to the proper authorities. Journalists are more than observers of our society; they are members of our society. Finding a compromise piece of legislation that takes into account the reporters' duties as citizens, while at the same time recognizes their important roles as disseminators of information, is not going to be an easy task for Congress. But it is a task that can be accomplished. About 25 "Newsmen Shield" bills have already been introduced in Congress. They range from offering newsmen the same privileges now accorded in doctor-patient and husband-wife relationships to "limited immunity," in which authorities would have to prove that a specific crime was committed before they could force a reporter to cooperate. Undoubtedly, a measure can emerge from this group of bills that will satisfy all parties and will, at the same time, conform to recent Supreme Court rulings on the subject. Any such measure must be carefully written, however, since there seems no question but that it will go a long way toward determining the future of freedom of the press in the United States. The press in America must be as free in the future as it has been in the past.