House Passes Federal Media Shield Law

Oct 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Warning that attempts to force reporters to reveal confidential sources are endangering the public’s right to know, the U.S. House of Representatives today approved what would be the first federal media shield law, despite the Bush administration’s strong opposition.
“If we keep going after journalists, they will be afraid to report the important stories,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. He cited stories on topics including professional athletes using steroids, hospitals dumping poor patients and Iraq war abuses.
“Without the free flow of information, the public will be ill-prepared to make informed choices,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who with Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., co-sponsored the legislation.
As passed in a 398-to-21 vote after a last-minute change, the legislation softened the broad shield law first proposed.
Reporters—defined as people engaged in journalism for financial gain or livelihood and not working for a foreign power or terrorist group—would be protected from being forced to disclose sources in federal cases, but with some exceptions.
In cases arising from concerns about terrorist attacks, judges could order disclosure when a “preponderance” of evidence means it is more likely that disclosure would “prevent an act of terrorism against … or other significant and specified harm to national security.”
Reporters also could be forced to testify when they personally witness criminal conduct, including when they obtain classified information illegally, but only if the government can prove that information was properly classified and that the disclosure has harmed or will harm national security.
Finally the protection is more limited when reporters get stolen business trade secrets or personal medical information. It makes clear the exemption applies to prosecution, not necessarily to civil damage complaints.
The Bush administration and some Republicans argued that the shield law isn’t needed and goes too far.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, warned the bill would impose severe limits on the Department of Justice and likely would prompt a presidential veto if approved by the Senate.
“No one should be above the law, not even the press,” Rep. Smith said. He pointed to a statement of administration policy warning the legislation “could severely frustrate—and in some cases completely eviscerate” investigation of terrorism and national security issues.


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