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House approves journalist shield bill

[JURIST] The US House of Representatives [official website] approved Tuesday a bill that would limit the government's ability to compel reporters to disclose confidential sources by delineating conditions under which it may do so. The Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 [H.R. 985 materials] was approved swiftly through a voice vote, though several opponents noted law enforcement and national security concerns. Under the bill's terms, 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 act would limit the scope of protection to reporters who receive "a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or ... substantial financial gain" from reporting, leaving many bloggers without an equivalent protection. Bill sponsor Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA) called the vote [statement text] "a major victory for the public's right to know." A Senate counterpart [S.448 materials], sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), is currently under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee [official website].

The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill [JURIST report] last week. In 2007, the House approved a similar bill [JURIST report] by a 398-21 vote. The measure died in the Senate under threat of presidential veto, despite a 15-2 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee [JURIST report]. 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 also 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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