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Senate Judiciary Committee advances media shield law

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill Sept. 12 that offers journalists some protections from government investigations of their newsgathering activities.

The 13-5 vote means the Free Flow of Information Act moves on to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill establishes rules for prosecutors seeking subpoenas of phone records and other private information of journalists, which the bill defines as certain employees and contractors of media outlets, certain freelancers and student journalists. Prosecutors would have to convince a judge that the information they seek would prevent or mitigate a terror attack before a subpoena would be granted. Judges may extend these protections to others who don’t meet the bill’s definition of a journalist.

The bill advances after the government was found to be investigating reporters with the Associated Press and FOX News earlier in the year. Journalists have long argued that such investigations create a chilling effect that discourages sources from sharing information.

Many in new media expressed their displeasure with the bill’s narrow definition of a journalist. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) amended the bill with the more restrictive language.

Writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website, Morgan Weiland said “self-publishing bloggers and citizen journalists” are disadvantaged because the amendment “advances a traditional vision of journalism” in the way it defines who is a journalist.

“Sen. Feinstein’s amendment is riddled with vague language, failing to define key terms … on which the definition of who’s a journalist turns,” wrote Weiland. Vagueness puts nontraditional journalists at a disadvantage, wrote Weiland, because it “invites interpretations that exclude those who are on the margins of status quo journalism, and who are often in a more vulnerable position and unable to hire legal counsel to sort through the law’s ambiguities.”