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House committee approves journalist shield bill

[JURIST] The US House Judiciary Committee [official website] on Wednesday approved a bill [HR 985 materials] that would limit the government's ability to compel reporters to disclose confidential sources. Under the terms of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, parties seeking the identity of confidential sources from reporters in federal court must show that the information relates to an act of terrorism, national security, disclosure of trade secrets, or the imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm. The court must further be convinced that the party seeking the disclosure has exhausted all other means of acquiring the information, and that "the public interest in compelling disclosure of the information or document involved outweighs the public interest in gathering or disseminating news or information". The bill also requires that the subject of a disclosure request be informed and given an opportunity to be heard before a communications service provider is compelled to disclose information about his or her activity. The protections in the proposed bill would extend only to reporters who receive "a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or ... substantial financial gain," leaving courts free to compel the disclosure of confidential sources from many bloggers. The bill passed the committee on a voice vote, with passage expected in the full House [RCFP report].

The committee passed a similar bill [JURIST report] in 2007, which was approved by the full house 398-21. The measure died in the Senate under threat of presidential veto, despite a 15-2 vote [JURIST report] in the Senate Judiciary Committee [official website]. The administration of former president George W. Bush continuously opposed the enactment of a federal reporter shield law [JURIST news archive] citing national security concerns, while proponents, including media outlets, argue the legislation is necessary to protect freedom of the press. 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 the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame [JURIST news archive]. Other journalists have faced contempt charges for refusing to reveal sources. In November, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated [JURIST report] a contempt order [JURIST report] against former USA Today reporter Toni Locy [JURIST news archive], who had refused to reveal government sources for a series of articles she wrote about the 2001 anthrax attacks [JURIST news archive].

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