Senate Judiciary Committee backs journalist shield bill

Senate Judiciary Committee backs journalist shield bill

[JURIST] The US Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] Thursday voted 15-2 to send a federal shield bill [S 2035 materials], which would protect reporters from being compelled to disclose confidential sources, to the full Senate for consideration. The Bush administration and the US Department of Justice have continuously opposed the enactment of a federal reporter shield law [JURIST news archive] citing national security concerns, while proponents of the bill, including media outlets, argue the legislation is necessary to protect freedom of the press. According to a statement [text] from one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA):

This legislation establishes a federal reporters' privilege to protect and encourage the free flow of information between journalists and confidential sources. It seeks to reconcile reporters' need to maintain confidentiality, in order to ensure that sources will speak openly and freely, with the public's right to effective law enforcement and fair trials.

In order to balance these competing interests, this bill creates a qualified privilege for reporters to withhold information they obtain under a promise of confidentiality. It ensures that a federal court can only force a journalist to reveal confidential source information where the information is truly critical to a case or investigation. It also requires the party seeking a reporter's confidential information to exhaust all reasonable alternative sources before turning to the media.

The bill also contains exceptions to the privilege for those situations where information sharing is critical. A reporter may not withhold his source information where it is needed to prevent a terrorist attack, significant harm to our national security, death, kidnapping, or substantial bodily harm. Journalists who witness crimes also cannot refuse to share their eyewitness observations.

The US House Judiciary Committee approved [JURIST report] similar legislation [HR 2102 materials] in August. That bill has not yet been debated on the House floor. AP has more.

The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed further consideration [JURIST report] of a similar proposed shield bill in September 2006 in the wake of strong opposition [JURIST report] from Justice Department officials.