SEJ letter to senators, March 14, 2003

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March 14, 2003

The Honorable Robert C. Byrd
The Honorable Susan Collins
The Honorable Orrin Hatch
The Honorable James Jeffords
The Honorable Patrick Leahy
The Honorable Joseph Lieberman

Dear Senators Byrd, Collins, Hatch, Jeffords, Leahy and Lieberman,

The Society of Environmental Journalists ( is the largest and oldest organization of individual working journalists covering environmental issues. On behalf of our more than 1,200 members, we are writing to express our continued deep concerns about extraordinary secrecy provisions in the Homeland Security Act, and to encourage your support for changes that better balance the public's right to know with well-intentioned efforts to protect the public.

As you know, we are not alone among journalists. Certain sections dealing with Critical Infrastructure Information have prompted a number of journalism organizations to voice their concerns about secrecy.

We would like to join our colleagues from the American Society of Magazine Editors; American Society of Newspaper Editors; Associated Press Managing Editors; Freedom of Information Center, University of Missouri School of Journalism; Magazine Publishers of America; National Federation of Press Women; National Newspaper Association; National Press Club; Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association; Newspaper Association of America; Radio-Television News Directors Association; Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and the Society of Professional Journalists in expressing our worries that information related to public health and safety will be needlessly shielded from view, and in calling for language that encourages as much openness as possible.

Secrecy provisions not only threaten public access to information related to the environment, they also constrain the government's ability to address environmental problems. Under the Homeland Security Act, disclosure by private facilities to the Department of Homeland Security neither obligates the private company to address the vulnerability, nor requires the department to fix it. For example, in the case of a chemical spill, the law bars the government from disclosing information without the written consent of the company that caused the pollution. As the Washington Post editorialized on February 10, 2003, "A company might preempt environmental regulators by voluntarily divulging incriminating material, thereby making it unavailable to anyone else." ("Fix This Loophole," Washington Post, February 10, 2003.)

We stand with our colleagues in supporting efforts to:

  • Clarify the FOIA exemption to be more consistent with established law, while still protecting records on critical infrastructure vulnerabilities submitted to the Department of Homeland Security by private firms.
  • Remove the restrictions on the government's ability to act as it sees fit in response to the information it receives.
  • Preserve whistleblower protections by removing unnecessary criminal penalties.
SEJ's non-partisan mission is to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting. Towards that end, SEJ provides critical support to journalists of all media in their efforts to cover complex environmental issues responsibly.

Our group's leaders, including members of its First Amendment Task Force, are concerned that the First Amendment is facing perhaps its greatest assault in more than 50 years because of the war on terrorism. It seems that no subject of reporting, except the military, has been under assault more than environmental issues. We are worried that the pendulum is swinging far too much toward secrecy. At risk are the very freedoms that government seeks to protect.

We ask you to please work to protect press freedoms in the public interest.


James Bruggers
SEJ First Amendment Task Force

Ken Ward, Jr.
Chair, SEJ First Amendment Task Force

Dan Fagin
President, SEJ

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The Society of Environmental Journalists
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Telephone: (215) 884-8174 Fax: (215) 884-8175

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