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DOJ renews opposition to federal shield law for reporters

[JURIST] A top US Justice Department official testified Thursday that the Bush Administration remains opposed to a proposed shield law [text; HR 2102 materials] that would protect media from federal pressure to reveal sources. Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand testified [prepared statement, PDF] during a House Judiciary Committee hearing [HJC materials; recorded video] that the DOJ has a "longstanding commitment to striking a balance between the public's interest in the free dissemination of ideas and information and the public's interest in effective law enforcement and the fair administration of justice" and that "the protections currently provided by the law and by the Department's own internal policies have been and continue to be effective in striking an appropriate balance between these two important interests." Brand said the proposed Free Flow of Information Act "would upset that balance, with serious and harmful affects":

It would summarily scrap a system that has successfully balanced the competing interests of law enforcement and the free flow of information only to replace it with one that, at best, will yield uncertain results at a time when the nation can ill afford it. And it does so without any hard evidence that the public's interest in the free flow of information is in any way being harmed or impaired by the efforts of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crime.

The Department recognizes that there are legitimate competing interests at stake when the newsgathering process and the criminal justice system intersect. But history has demonstrated that the protections already in place, including the Department's own rigorous internal review of media subpoena requests, are sufficient and strike the appropriate balance between the free dissemination of information and effective law enforcement.
Brand specifically contested the bill's definition of journalist as too encompassing and pointed to that vagueness as a potential problem for federal investigators. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia currently have similar shield laws on their books.

The bill was first proposed in May 2006, partially in response to the controversial 85-day jailing of New York Times journalist Judith Miller [JURIST news archive] after she refused to reveal a source to the federal grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity [JURIST news archive]. The 2006 bill also met opposition from the Justice Department [JURIST report]. Leaders in the House and Senate are in favor of the current bill, but Democratic officials say there are no current plans to advance the bill out of committee. AP has more.

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