Thursday, December 10, 2009

Panel rejects narrow definition of 'journalist,' sends federal shield law bill to full Senate

A shield law made it out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today, perhaps removing the major obstacle to putting protection for reporters' confidential sources into the federal statute books. The committee rejected amendments, strongly opposed by journalism groups, that would have sunset the bill in 2013 and made it apply only to a "salaried employee" or "independent contractor" of a news organization.

UPDATE, Dec. 11: The latter amendment was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California. After it was defeated, Durbin voted against the bill. Because Durbin is the Senate majority whip, he could block consideration of the bill by the full Senate. Durbin has agreed to stop pushing a provision in the amendment that would deny the shield to anonymous or pseudonymous posters, but says he wants to clarify that the shield applies only to news outlets, a term that may have to be further defined to get the bill before the Senate.

The bill defines journalists broadly, "including bloggers, citizen journalists and freelancers — and relies on court tests to determine whether sources deserve protection," The Associated Press notes. "The journalist is defined by the nature of activity engaged in, rather than by the organization that employs the reporter. . . . The bill does not give journalists absolute authority to protect sources. Those rights can be overridden in national security cases. ... A federal judge would weigh the public's right to know versus national security claims made by the government."

The bill "has been pushed by journalistic organizations for at least two decades," reports John Eggerton of Multichannel News. "It was held up by the Obama administration until a compromise was struck on some national security issues, and then by Republicans, who thought the balance was still too far in favor of journalists and argued the compromise had been between people who already supported the bill, not Republicans with remaining issues." (Read more)

The bill was approved 14-5. It now goes to the full Senate. The House has passed a different version but supporters are likely to ask the House to accept the Senate version, which contains language agreed on by the Justice Department, intelligence agencies and the bill's supporters.

Every state but Wyoming has some sort of source protection, or reporter's privilege, in statute or case law. For more from the Society of Professional Journalists, click here. For background on reporters' privilege from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, click here.

No comments: