The fact that the US Senate is now defining what a journalist actually is sets a dangerous precedent threatening the present marketplace of ideas that in recent history has been greatly expanded by the internet.
According to the text of an amendment sponsored by Senators Diane Feinstein and Dick Durbin to the proposed “Free Flow of Information Act” (PDF) that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 12, only salaried journalists will be given the free press protections guaranteed to all US citizens by the Constitution.
Under such a law presumably only the news reporters and analysts employed by moderate-to-substantial revenue-generating news entities are regarded as “legitimate” journalists. This is because the Feinstein-Durbin amendment’s wording is especially vague on exactly what type of news organization the writer needs to be affiliated with to be able to comment and report freely.
The major concern with this move is twofold. First, it is fundamentally unconstitutional. The First Amendment unambiguously states that
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
If such legislation achieves passage free speech will be diminished as thousands of independent journalists conducting valid research into a variety of malfeasance and corruption by major institutions may be open to government subpoenas and legal action by those they investigate and report on. Further, such a law paves the way for Congress to formally license journalists, which is close to happening in the United Kingdom.
Secondly, this measure involves more than an oblique targeting of alternative news media and the extremely important work they do. As their coverage and analysis of incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the unfolding Syrian crisis suggests, independent news websites have played significant roles in helping the public to better comprehend the underlying political dynamics and import of such events.