News reporters may soon be granted federal protection from being held in contempt of court, fined or even jailed for refusing to divulge confidential sources.
That's the goal of a so-called "media shield law" being shepherded through the Senate Judiciary Committee by its chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
Since April Leahy and the bill’s lead sponsors — Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Arlen Specter (D-PA) — have worked with media organizations and coalitions and Pres. Barack Obama's administration to make progress on the legislation.
Thursday, the committee adopted a key substitute amendment that would not protect reporters if they refuse to give up confidential sources in a case where national security is compromised, or if those sources came across their information illegally
“Enacting the Free Flow of Information Act — which carefully balances the need to protect confidential source information with the need to protect law enforcement and national security needs — would help to reverse the troubling trend of making the press the first stop instead of the last stop for acquiring information,” said Leahy in a statement.
The changes to the bill are clearly designed to mollify some critics.
First, the amended bill clarifies that only journalists are protected by the law. Earlier versions of the bill, including a House version, protected bloggers from having to reveal their sources.
The new language sets up a process for how the courts can review privileged materials as the court weighs both the public interest of the article and the secrets involved. And, in the event of a government leak investigation, the new language says the feds do not need to prove that leaked information could only come from an authorized source before asking a reporter to reveal confidential sources.
The bill also excluded "terrorists" from being defined as journalists. Go figure.
“After years of debate and countless cases of reporters being held in contempt, fined and even jailed for honoring their professional commitment not to publicly reveal their sources, the time has come to enact a balanced federal shield law," Leahy said. "I hope the committee will complete its consideration of this important legislation next week.”
On Wednesday, more than 70 news media organizations wrote to Leahy in support of the substitute amendment. The legislation is supported by dozens of media organizations including the Vermont Press Association.
In their letter, the organizations claimed that, since 2001, five journalists have been sentenced or jailed for refusing to reveal their confidential sources in federal court. Two reporters were sentenced to 18 months in prison and one reporter faced up to $5000 a day in fines.
"A 2006 study concluded that this surge in high-profile federal cases against reporters has contributed to an overall increase in subpoenas to the press, as government attorneys and private litigants have been
emboldened by the lack of a federal media shield law," the letter stated. "A companion study estimated that in 2006 alone, 67 federal subpoenas sought confidential material from reporters, with 41 of those subpoenas seeking the name of a confidential source."
The committee is expected to continue debate on the legislation on September 17.