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Senate Judiciary Committee advances work on media shield law

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed on a voice vote Aug. 1 an amendment strengthening a media shield bill working its way through the Senate that codifies and extends recent Department of Justice guidelines aimed at protecting journalists from unrestricted investigation and searching of records by the government.

If enacted, the law would limit the DOJ to seeking a single extension of a 45-day delay in notifying a member of the press of monitoring. Thus, the DOJ would have no more than 90 days to inform journalists of a DOJ investigation. 

The DOJ released its media guidelines in the wake of the scandal that erupted earlier this year when it was revealed that the department had been monitoring the phone records of some Associated Press reporters and investigating FOX News reporter James Rosen.

The amendment, offered by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), would prevent future administrations from undoing the DOJ guidelines. It also makes clear that bill applies to situations other than simply those covered in the DOJ media guidelines, including records sought from other businesses, such as journalists’ credit card transactions.

“The legislation now makes crystal clear that the new DOJ guidelines should be the law of the land, and not be up to interpretation of the Attorney General depending on his or her views,” Schumer said. “We need a strong media shield bill now more than ever. This is an important step forward that strengthens this bipartisan bill, and should give it even more momentum to clear the committee and the Senate by the end of the year.”

The Senate bill establishes a process for the legal system to approve subpoenas of journalists' records that weighs the public’s interest in protecting press freedom against the harm of potential terrorist threats. Prosecutors would be required to convince a judge that the information being sought would “prevent or mitigate an act of terrorism or harm to national security.”

The bill, however, has run into some problems in the committee regarding the definition of who is a journalist. There is concern among some members over extending these protections to people and organizations not viewed as journalists by an older, more traditional notion of the news media.