DOJ Commits to Protecting Media Independence

Merrick Garland has been tapped as Attorney General under the Biden Administration
Attorney General Merrick Garland

Attorney General Merrick Garland told news media execs in a meeting Tuesday (Sept. 13) that his department was committed to protecting a free and independent press, including ensuring that journalists are not compelled to reveal their sources or information as part of law enforcement investigations.

In July 2021, Garland announced a new policy to restrict compulsory processes to get information collected in the "scope of newsgathering activities." Those protections are necessary in the absence of a federal shield law and include a prohibition on subpoenas, warrants, certain court orders, and "civil investigative demands."

Also: Journalists Press for Shield Law

Garland told the news executives, which included execs from CBS, NBC, CNN and NPR, that the act of codifying that July 2021 policy shift, which was announced in a memo, would be ready and posted online in the next three months.

The prohibition does not apply if a journalist is him or herself being investigated for criminal conduct, such as insider trading, or to a journalist who used criminal methods -- breaking and entering, for example, to obtain information. But the prohibition does apply if a journalist has obtained and published government information, including classified information, in the course of their reporting.

There is also the traditional carveout -- typical for state shield laws -- for subpoenas or warrants or other legal processes employed to prevent imminent risk of death or serious harm to people or critical infrastructure.

Justice also supported a federal shield law as part of that July 2021 rethink, but none has yet to make it through the Congress despite multiple attempts over many years. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.