House passes federal shield bill

The U.S. House of Representatives Oct. 16 passed, by a 398-21 vote, a bill to protect journalists from being forced to disclose confidential sources.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Oct. 4 passed a similar bill that awaits a vote by the full Senate. (See: “Senate Judiciary Committee OKs shield law.”) President George Bush said this week that he intended to veto the bill.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), a member of a coalition of 40 media companies and journalistic organizations, issued a statement applauding the House vote.

The bipartisan bill, introduced in May, establishes a federal standard to safeguard journalists’ ability to gather important information from sources who would otherwise be reluctant to come forward.

The legislation is sponsored by Reps. Rick Boucher, D-VA; John Conyers, D-MI; Mike Pence, R-IN; Howard Coble, R-NC; and John Yarmuth, D-KY; in the House, and Sens. Richard Lugar, R-IN, and Christopher Dodd, D-CT, in the Senate.

As written, H.R. 2102 provides journalists with a qualified privilege, requiring them to testify to prevent "imminent and actual harm" to national security or "imminent death or significant bodily harm" to individuals. Journalists would also be required to reveal sources if such testimony could identify someone who has disclosed significant trade secrets or certain financial or medical information, or if a compelling case can be made that there is an overriding public interest in the disclosure.

The legislation also protects information held by telephone companies, Internet services and other communications providers that would otherwise reveal confidential sources.