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Senate Judiciary Committee approves journalist shield bill

[JURIST] The US Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] approved a bill Thursday that would protect journalists' abilities to shield sources in federal court proceedings. Under the Free Flow of Information Act [S 448 materials], which was approved 14-5, the federal government would not be able compel a journalist to produce protected documents or sources unless the government shows it has exhausted other means of obtaining the information, that the information sought is vital to the resolution of the case, and that compelling the production of the document or source is in the public interest. The bill contains exceptions to these protections for cases in which the journalist has witnessed a crime or where the information is necessary to stop, prevent, or mitigate a specific death, kidnapping, or case of serious bodily harm. The bill also provides an exception for the government when it can show that national security interests are at stake. Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) [official website], one of the bill's co-sponsors, praised the legislation [press release], saying it "creates a fair standard to protect the public interest, journalists, the news media, bloggers, prosecutors and litigants." If the Senate approves the bill, it must be reconciled with a similar House bill before passing into law.

The version of the bill passed Thursday represents a compromise [JURIST report] reached in October among the Obama administration, lawmakers, and news organizations. In September, the Obama administration informed Congress that it objected [JURIST report] to the proposed legislation based on national security concerns. The US House of Representatives passed the Free Flow of Information Act in late March, days after it was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee [JURIST reports]. The House passed a similar bill in 2007, but it was never voted on by the full Senate, despite passing the Judiciary Committee by a 15-2 vote [JURIST reports]. The bill was first proposed in response to the jail sentence given to Judith Miller, a journalist who would not reveal who provided her with 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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