Senate Judiciary Committee approves shield law

The Senate Judiciary Committee Oct. 4 voted to send a bill to the full chamber that would extend limited safeguards to journalists from being compelled to reveal their confidential sources.

The committee voted 15 to 2 to recommend S.2035 — the Free Flow of Information Act — to the full Senate for approval. Sens. Richard Lugar, R-IN, and Christopher Dodd, D-CT, introduced the bipartisan bill in May in the Senate. A similar measure, 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, passed in the House Judiciary Committee in August and awaits action in the full House.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), a member of a coalition of 40 media companies and journalistic organizations, applauded the committee’s endorsement of the bill. Association president Barbara Cochran called the vote “very encouraging.”

The Senate bill does not extend absolute privilege to journalists. A confidential source’s identity can be compelled if disclosure is necessary to prevent “a specific case of terrorism against the United States or significant harm to national security that outweighs the public interest in newsgathering and maintaining a free flow of information to citizens.”

There is only a qualified privilege for leaks of properly classified information. Journalists also have no privilege in situations where they are eyewitnesses to a crime and where someone’s life — or the prevention of bodily harm — depends on a reporter’s confidential source information.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have shield laws and 17 other states have recognized reporter’s privilege as a result of judicial decisions. Federal courts currently have no uniform set of standards to govern when testimony may be sought from reporters.

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