INDIANAPOLIS – Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists expressed concern June 7 about the possible weakening of existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve the news media.
“While not perfect from a journalist’s perspective, the guidelines are quite good,” said SPJ President Sonny Albarado in a letter responding to Attorney General Eric Holder’s invitation to attend one of a series of off-the-record policy meetings at Justice. “We would object to any attempt to water them down, include new exceptions and caveats or otherwise make it easier for the government to disregard.”
The letter noted that SPJ believes the Justice Department violated the guidelines — established in 1972 — in its subpoena of phone records of The Associated Press and its reporters as part of a classified-information leak probe.
No one from SPJ’s executive committee attended Friday’s meeting with Holder because it was billed as an off-the-record policy discussion, but Albarado asked a representative from SPJ’s law firm, BakerHostetler, to attend and voice SPJ’s concerns.
“We disagree with your intention to hold off-the-record sessions and were glad to see that you agreed in previous meetings to the dissemination of summaries of the content of those meetings,” Albarado wrote. “We believe even more transparency is required for such important issues as press freedom and government intrusion into the news-gathering process.
“But a larger issue lies beyond whether your meetings are on or off the record,” Albarado said.
SPJ questions what the Justice Department hopes to gain from its meetings with journalism organizations, Albarado said.
“What we would like to see from you and the administration is a statement affirming your support of the existing guidelines (on subpoenas of journalists),” Albarado said.
SPJ would like to see “…a statement that assures the press and the public that the Justice Department will follow the guidelines — especially the provisions that mandate a narrowly drawn subpoena and notice to the affected news organization.”
Albarado’s letter continued: “We also would like to see you and the President affirm that most journalists are thoughtful, patriotic and judicious Americans and that these journalists diligently strive, with the help of government sources, to ensure that articles about our country’s efforts to fight terrorism and other national security matters do not compromise or otherwise harm lawful national security activities.
“We hope that you and your agency will work with the journalism community to sustain the aspirations of the existing guidelines and strengthen rather than weaken them,” Albarado said.
A copy of Albarado’s full letter to Holder can be found below this statement.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.