The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is considering tweaking their name in response to what one of its leaders calls California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s “neurotic” efforts to limit who can be protected under federal media shield laws.
Earlier this week, the SPJ’s ethics committee weighed a resolution to change the name of the organization — which was founded in 1909 to protect the freedom of the press and to promote ethical journalistic standards — to the Society of Professional Journalism.
“SPJ’s name doesn’t accurately reflect its current membership because many members and even many SPJ board members are not professional journalists,” read the resolution proposed by Michael Koretzky, a regional director for the organization.
The proposal, which initially failed to pass after a lengthy debate, will remain on the table, according to SPJ President Dave Cuillier.
“I am creating a task force to look into it further and provide recommendations to the executive committee and then the full board, which could then make a recommendation to the delegates at a future convention,” Cuillier told media blogger Jim Romenesko.
Statements made by Feinstein helped spark the SPJ debate which commenced at the Excellence in Journalism conference held this week in Anaheim, California.
In a Senate Judiciary meeting on the shield laws Feinstein said “this bill is described as a reporter shield law — I believe it should be applied to real reporters,’’ according to the AP.
The law, which was sponsored by New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, was a response to revelations earlier this year that the Department of Justice had secretly subpoenaed the Associated Press’ phone records without the news organization’s prior knowledge.
According to the AP, Feinstein also said that she was concerned ‘‘that the current version of the bill would grant a special privilege to people who aren’t really reporters at all, who have no professional qualifications.”
This has elicited criticism from those who think the laws should apply to independent bloggers, student reporters, citizen journalists and freelancers.
In their meeting earlier this week, SPJ approved a resolution penned by ethics committee Chairman Kevin Z. Smith strongly rejecting Feinstein’s limitations.
The resolution read, “Any attempts by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., or any other federal lawmakers to create a restrictive definition of ‘journalist’ in the context of a shield law is an affront to journalism and to First Amendment rights of a free press.”
Smith’s resolution noted that SPJ has supported federal media shield laws since 2005 and has long resisted narrowly defining “journalist.”
“Journalists should not be defined by the mediums in which they work, the percentage of their incomes derived from journalism work, their education, their employer, or any other specific criteria that would limit their abilities to inform the citizenry,” reads the resolution.
Reached by The Daily Caller News Foundation, Smith said that Feinstein first “obstructed the shield law over this definition” in 2010. “I thought it was appropriate for us to make a statement while at the convention in her backyard,” Smith said through email.
Narrowing who qualifies for protection as a journalist is a slippery slope, according to Smith.
“They use that same restriction to deny access to information, or press credentials or who public officials will speak to. This is a direction we can’t go and we are not going to let the narrow-minded thinking of one, neurotic U.S. senator take us in that direction.”
Congressional debate on the shield law has been put off until next month.
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