Friday, September 28, 2007

Congressional committees tackle proposed shield law for journalists, cameras in federal courts

Issues important to journalists were at the forefront yesterday in two congressional committees. While the Senate Judiciary Committee discussed the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, which would be the first federal media shield law, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony in relation to the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2007, which would give judges discretion to permit electronic media coverage of proceedings.

The Free Flow of Information Act "would provide a qualified privilege to journalists from being compelled to reveal information and/or the identities of their confidential sources except under certain conditions," writes Mickey H. Osterreicher, the general legal counsel to the National Press Photographers Association. In the session yesterday, the committee voted down some proposed amendments that "would have watered-down" the legislation by prosecutors more power to compel journalists to testify in national security cases, Osterreicher reports.

At the same time,
Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran testified before the House Judiciary Committee and urged the legislators to open federal courts to the media, reports the RTNDA's Stefani Blair. "RTNDA’s members have covered court proceedings in every state, and their experiences demonstrate that cameras do not interfere with the administration of justice or infringe the rights of defendants or witnesses," Cochran said. “Cameras in the courtroom work. They create a public record. They get the story right.” Cochran's full prepared remarks are available here.

Currently, radio and television coverage is effectively banned in federal criminal and civil proceedings at both the trial and appellate level. This legislation would create a three-year pilot program under which federal judges could allow cameras and microphones in their courts. All 50 states, however, allow some audiovisual coverage of court proceedings, with 43 states allowing that coverage at a trial level. A state-by-state guide to courtroom coverage laws can be viewed here.

This week, newspapers around the country have written editorials in support of the proposed federal shield law for journalist, and Editor & Publisher has compiled a sampling. To read it, go here.

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