All agree on public's right to know

Rep. Mike Pence says freedom of information is the public’s right, not merely a reporter’s privilege

By Kristin Markway, University of Missouri

INDIANAPOLIS -- For a man who describes himself as "terribly conservative," Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN, got a lot of inspiration from liberals when crafting the Free Flow of Information Act.

Pence spoke about the act on April 21 at the 2006 Freedom of Information Summit in Indianapolis. He explained to the crowd of mostly journalists, attorneys and others interested in public access to records – that he was inspired to work on a shield law after two incidents: hearing a liberal CNN commentator remark that Bob Novak should be thrown in jail and reading a New York Times op-ed piece that said a Republican would never support a shield law.

But Pence says the media shield law fits right into his ideology.

"I think a free and independent press is the only check on government power in real time," he said. "And as a conservative who believes in limited government, I understand that the vitality of a free and independent press was precisely the reason for which our founders enshrined this principle in the Constitution."

Pence encouraged the journalists in the room to speak and write about the act in terms of the benefit to the public as a whole.

"Speak about this not as a reporter's privilege," he said. "Speak about this as the public's right to know."

He later went on to say that the public has a real interest in preserving the existence of whistleblowers such as "Deep Throat," who leaked information to reporters about the Watergate scandal during President Richard Nixon's administration. And to those critics who say a shield law places journalists above the law, Pence leans heavily on a constitutional privilege.

"The supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States. In that law, a free and independent press was established and enshrined. We're not adding a new element -- we're restating it, we're reaffirming it, we're clarifying it."

Marian Pearcy, the president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, said that the "hot issue" struck a responsive chord with the audience.

"It shows that this issue is not a partisan issue," she said. "There is a community of interest in pursuing this."

However, not everyone is convinced. Pence is enthusiastic about the bill’s ability to pass the House, but the Senate is a bigger challenge. It has been referred to the judiciary committee and has scheduled a primary hearing, but no significant progress has been made.

The bill has also undergone some changes. It does not include an absolute privilege, rather a qualified privilege that allows for exceptions under threats to national security concerns. Pence said this allows journalists to report without fear of imprisonment while still protecting security.

"This work must be done," he said.

Pence was first elected to Congress in 2000 and was re-elected in 2002 and 2004. He is a member of the Republican Study Committee, the largest caucus in the House of Representatives, and serves on the judiciary, international relations and agriculture committees. His speech ended the first day of events at the two-day summit sponsored by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Indiana Coalition for Open Government.