President Barack Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009 and the next day renewed his promise of a new era of open government and public accountability. But despite several new executive orders and policy changes, the administration’s continuation of some of Washington’s traditional secretive practices has already drawn the criticism of open-government advocates.
Federal shield bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would limit the federal government’s power to subpoena journalists. News organizations and press freedom advocates are optimistic about the chances that a shield bill creating a privilege will become law.
A federal magistrate judge in Nevada held that “the plain language” of the state’s reporter shield law confers an “absolute privilege,” protecting a reporter from disclosing sources and other newsgathering information in a Jan. 30, 2009 ruling.
The battle over confidential sources between former Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino and Detroit Free Press reporter David Ashenfelter shifted from First Amendment freedoms to Fifth Amendment protections after Ashenfelter refused to answer questions at a Dec. 31, 2008 deposition, citing the right against compelled self-incrimination.
The United States Department of Education released a 54-page document on Dec. 9, 2008 that detailed several modifications to the enforcement of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The new rules, which went into effect on January 8, essentially expand the definition of what constitutes a confidential “education record” under federal privacy standards.
As President George W. Bush prepared to make way for his successor, Barack Obama, on Jan. 20, 2009, a trio of lawsuits filed by watchdog groups concerned with the preservation of Bush administration records continued to wind their way through federal courts in Washington.
After nearly two years of debate and competing reports from an advisory committee, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered Feb. 12, 2009 that current procedures governing electronic media coverage in the state’s courtrooms should be retained until a pilot project and concurrent study can be completed.
The 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 5, 2009 that the privacy interests of Guantanamo Bay detainees and their families who were the subject of investigations of prisoner abuse outweigh the public interest in their personal information being released to The Associated Press (AP).
A former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst said the agency’s warrantless surveillance program monitored American news organizations and domestic communications, contrary to assertions by the Bush administration that the program targeted only communications between U.S. residents and suspected terrorists overseas.
Israel banned journalists from entering Gaza during its military operations there in December and January, drawing outcry from international press organizations and the United Nations (U.N.). The Israel Supreme Court ruled against the ban on Jan. 25, 2009.
Although Iraq remains the deadliest country in the world for journalists, the total number of reporters killed in Iraq in 2008 dropped significantly from the record numbers of deaths in the preceding two years, in part reflecting a decline in Western media presence there.
On Feb. 19, 2009, a jury unanimously acquitted three men accused of helping to organize the 2006 killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The presiding judge ordered the case reopened and press freedom advocates are demanding a renewed and vigorous investigation.
A U.S. District Court judge in Boston authorized a live Internet video stream of oral arguments in a widely followed file-sharing lawsuit in January 2009, but the plaintiff recording companies seeking to prevent the webcast have appealed the order to the 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
On Feb. 17, 2009, a federal judge refused to dismiss The Associated Press’s (AP) claim that the AP can assert an ownership interest in “hot news” against a competing online service.
Plaintiffs in several defamation lawsuits are seeking court orders to identify anonymous Internet users, raising First Amendment concerns regarding the protections afforded to anonymous communicators on the Internet.
A blogger who was arrested and charged by federal agents with illegally streaming nine tracks from the then-forthcoming Guns N’ Roses album “Chinese Democracy” pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of copyright infringement as part of a deal with prosecutors. He is scheduled for sentencing on March 17, 2009.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that it will reduce its use of lawsuits to combat illegal online music sharing, and will instead cooperate with Internet service providers (ISPs) to stop the transfer of copyrighted works, a Dec. 19, 2008 story in The Wall Street Journal reported.
The creator of a popular poster featuring President Barack Obama filed a lawsuit in federal district court in New York City on Feb. 9, 2009 against The Associated Press (AP), asking the judge to issue a declaration that he did not infringe the AP’s copyright for a photograph that inspired the poster. On March 11, 2009, the AP filed an answer and countersuit.
Authorities in Colorado and Wisconsin have charged three people with criminal libel in separate incidents all involving the Internet. The charges concern commentators who argue that it is constitutionally impermissible to criminalize speech.
A new bill aimed at protecting American journalists, writers, and publishers from defamation judgments in foreign jurisdictions with less stringent speech protections was introduced in the United States Senate on Feb. 17, 2009.
The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, ruled Nov. 12, 2008 that the “fair report privilege” does not extend to fair and accurate reports of a complaint filed by a debtor’s trustee in a bankruptcy case, at least until there has been “judicial review” of the complaint.
On Feb. 13, 2009, the 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston held that truth may no longer be a defense to libel in lawsuits brought by private figure plaintiffs under Massachusetts law if the allegedly libelous statement was published by a defendant acting out of “ill will.”
The student newspaper at Faribault High School in Faribault, Minn. returned to the presses in February 2009 after a fight over prior review resulted in the school’s superintendent suspending publication and students turning to the local newspaper and the Internet as alternative means of publishing.
As of Jan. 1, 2009, a new California law offers journalism advisors and other school employees increased protection from retaliatory administrative action for material published by their students.
NBC News producers and a Rwandan prosecutor apparently joined forces for a series of surprise confrontations at Goucher College in Baltimore where a man they said was involved in the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda was working as a professor.
The BBC announced Jan. 22, 2009 that it would not broadcast a video appeal from a group of British charities on behalf of the civilian victims of recent fighting in Gaza. The announcement was met with immediate criticism and protest from citizens, members of Parliament, and other media outlets.
Iseman Says Paper Lied about Apology and Retraction
A lobbyist whose relationship with former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the focus of a Feb. 21, 2008 New York Times story settled her defamation lawsuit against the newspaper on Feb. 19, 2009. Following the settlement, Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman claimed that the Times violated the spirit of their agreement through a statement published on its Web site and lied about whether it apologized for its story during the settlement negotiations. The Times disagreed.
Efforts by the U.S. military to merge “public affairs” information operations with those aimed at propaganda have drawn criticism from NATO allies in Afghanistan as well as the Defense Department’s Inspector General.
FCC, Other Agencies also Investigating
The first of three federal agencies scheduled to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the use of retired military officers as independent analysts on television news programs reported in January 2009 that it found “insufficient evidence” to support allegations that the Defense Department violated federal law.